Senate subcommittee delves deep into trucking issues

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 6/3/2014

A U.S. Senate subcommittee got down to brass tacks on some trucking concerns Tuesday, June 3, while discussing hours of service, sleep apnea, minimum insurance requirements, and the regulatory impact on small-business truckers with FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro.

The Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety and Security – which is part of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee – held the hearing as part of the lead-up to drafting motor carrier safety, railroad, port and transit provisions for the next highway bill.

Hours of service, specifically changes to restart provisions and mandatory breaks enacted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in July 2013, continue to be a hot topic among truckers and carriers.

Sens. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., questioned the economic effects of the HOS changes on small-business truckers.

“Yes, there’s been an economic impact on the industry, and we certainly recognized that would happen,” Ferro said. “The majority of the impact is on the long-haul, over-the-road, irregular route driver.”

Fischer wanted to know how the past 11 months stacked up against the FMCSA’s projection that HOS reforms would save 19 lives and 500 injury crashes per year.

“In regard to the safety benefits, the way crash and injury data is reported, we don’t have the data yet to show, but we certainly do know that it is having an impact … and we’ll press forward as we committed,” Ferro said.

Ferro said technology will play a role.

“The electronic logging devices, onboard technologies, monitoring of drivers – all of that will be part of our analysis going forward with naturalistic driving studies,” she said.

“Let’s get through several years of this operation,” she later told the subcommittee. “Let’s begin the data collection now and the analysis now so we can continue reporting.”

Ayotte said truckers have contacted her with concerns about HOS restrictions that force them to drive more hours in congestion.

“What I’m hearing from companies large and small is that they’re going to have to drive more during the day – that they’re going to have to put more trucks on the road,” Ayotte said.

Ayotte pressed another issue – minimum insurance requirements – specifically the FMCSA’s advanced notice of proposed rulemaking that could lead to increases.

Ayotte said the Motor Carrier Safety Act of 1980 requires the administration to describe the rationale for selecting insurance limits and to estimate the economic effects on motor carriers including small-business carriers and owner-operators. She asked if Ferro and the agency planned to hold to those requirements.

“Yes, you absolutely have my commitment and the agency’s commitment,” Ferro said.

On the topic of sleep apnea, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., asked Ferro if the FMCSA was directing medical examiners to push for sleep testing for drivers even though Congress recently mandated that any changes to current medical guidance on apnea follow a proper rulemaking process.

“I’m told that your trainers are still referring (truckers) to doctors even though there’s still no rule that’s been promulgated yet. Is that true?” Blunt asked.

Ferro said the FMCSA is providing the same information to the new National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners that it has provided for years.

“The same information that they have had is still in the long form,” said Ferro. “That has not changed. And in fact the curriculum that the medical examiners are required to follow, now that we have a registry of certified medical examiners in place, follows the same provisions that have always been there so there has been no change I assure you.”

Later, Ferro implied that examiners already have the discretion to evaluate disorders such as obstructive sleep apnea.

“Medical examiners are expected when they examine a truck or bus driver and determine if they meet the physical qualifications for holding a commercial driver’s license, they include a full examination of chronic conditions and conditions that could affect that driver’s ability to be alert and at all times conscious behind the wheel,” she said. “So, among those conditions that they’ve always looked at have been breathing disorders and pulmonary disorders that obstructive sleep disorders fall into.”

Blunt asked if the FMCSA was pursuing a new rule on apnea.

“We are absolutely not,” Ferro said.

Many of the issues discussed are of importance to OOIDA and small-business truckers.

OOIDA Director of Government Affairs Ryan Bowley said the Association is pleased to see lawmakers raising concerns of the men and women who move America’s freight.

“There continues to be a good level of concern about HOS rules that are currently in place, especially the science behind those rules, and other issues of concern such as the push to increase minimum insurance levels,” Bowley said.

“Committee members are really touching on issues that OOIDA members and truckers around the industry are concerned about,” he said.

“It all goes back to the world the FMCSA lives in now. They do the research, and they decide if it’s good quality research without any outside agencies to evaluate it,” Bowley said.

“What possible safety benefit could higher minimums have? There’s no bright line connecting the two, yet there’s going to be significant impacts to small carriers.”

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