Dec 03, 2015 at 02:18 PM CST
By Jeff Plungis
Posted Dec. 3, 2015 at 2:37 PM
It looks like there won’t be a lot of 18-year-old interstate truck drivers after all.
As Congress neared its final votes on a 5-year, $305 billion highway bill Thursday, the legislation pares back an experiment with teenage truckers that was in versions of the bill passed by the House and Senate. Instead, there will be a scaled-back pilot program. Only military veterans with truck-driving training will participate.
The outcome is a disappointment to the trucking industry, which had argued that the creation of a graduated-license system for new drivers under the age of 21 was a measured, responsible way to address a shortage of truckers.
"It’s good news that Congress has created an opportunity for young veterans to transition to the trucking industry," said Bill Graves, president and chief executive officer of the American Trucking Associations. “We believe it is illogical to allow these younger drivers to operate in intrastate commerce in each of the 48 contiguous states, but not let them cross state borders.”
Aside from the struggle to come up with enough money to pay for five years of highway and transit construction, the highway funding bill passed by the House Thursday represents several hard-fought compromises on truck safety.
“We were trying to defend against rollbacks in truck safety at a time when we have a significant increase in truck fatalities and accidents on our highways,” said U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.
Booker also championed a provision in the bill to study the effects of long commutes on truck drivers before they report to work. The Wal-Mart Stores Inc. driver involved in the 2014 crash that severely injured actor Tracy Morgan had driven about 800 miles before beginning his 11-hour driving shift, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
“This was critical to me,” Booker said. “We’re going to continue to fight, because what we’ve seen from the truck industry is they’re going to continue to push the bounds of human endurance.”
The trucking industry won some restrictions on its regulator, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. A program that published scores of trucking companies based on numbers of citations, crashes and drug violations will have to be overhauled, and the safety scores will be hidden from the public while the fixes are being made.
Those changes didn’t go as far as the trucking industry wanted to go, Booker said. Consumer groups will still be able to pull down raw data on trucking violations, he said. Bus company scores will still be available to the public.
The most significant blow to the trucking industry may concern longer trucks.
Several companies, including FedEx Corp., Old Dominion Freight Line Inc. and YRC Worldwide Inc., wanted permission to use configurations of twin 33-foot trailers instead of their current twin 28-foot combos. Their effort has been supported by shippers like Amazon.com Inc., which argued the longer trucks would mean fewer trucks on the road, reducing truck traffic by 6.6 million trips and 1.3 billion miles.
The final bill doesn’t include authorization for the 33-foot trailers. The Senate also passed a resolution putting the chamber on record against the policy. There’s still a possibility that the annual appropriations bill for the Transportation Department could address longer trailers.
Those trucking productivity arguments ran into the fears of motorists who don’t like to try to drive around double-trailer trucks at their existing lengths. A poll released by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety showed 77 percent of the public opposed to longer trailers, with 62 percent strongly opposed.
“Major improvements were made in the final bill,” said Jackie Gillan, president of the Washington-based watchdog group. Many lawmakers “were alarmed over numerous anti-safety rollbacks adopted in both the House and Senate versions on behalf of special auto and trucking interests,” she said.