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Trucking Trends: Highway Bill: Good News, Bad News

By Mark Montague, DAT Solutions

After using a series of short-term extensions to fund the nation’s road and transit spending, President Obama signed a five-year, $305 billion highway bill on Dec. 4. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, paid for with fuel tax revenue and a package of $70 billion in offsets from other areas of the federal budget, contains a number of new regulations that directly affect commercial trucking.

However, the FAST Act is perhaps more notable for what it excludes.

No national carrier hiring standard

One provision that did not survive the legislative process was the National Carrier Hiring Standard, which would have required shippers and third parties that hire trucking companies to check a carrier’s federal safety rating, registration, and insurance coverage before tendering a freight contract.

The standard was supported by groups like the Transportation Intermediaries Association (TIA), which argues that shippers and freight brokers are under increasing pressure to make decisions about whether a trucking company is "safe" based on CSA (Compliance, Safety, and Accountability) scores.

CSA scores aren’t linked to a carrier’s safety fitness rating, which is assigned after a FMCSA audit. Yet the data is sometimes used in court as evidence against a shipper or broker that hires a carrier that may be deemed unsafe.

"Currently, industry stakeholders are often asked to second-guess the FMCSA on determining which carriers are safe to operate and those that are not," the TIA said. A national hiring standard would have defined the type of data that can be used against a negligent hiring case.

CSA scores out of public view

The FAST Act does give shippers and brokers some modicum of protection. The law will remove certain

CSA data from public view, including CSA scores and alerts. Out-of-service rates and all inspection and violation information submitted to FMCSA by law enforcement and inspectors will continue to be available.

Other omissions

Other measures were lost to bipartisan compromises necessary to finalize the bill, including increases in liability insurance for carriers. This was a concern because a significant increase in the cost of insurance could hurt small carriers and could even push many of them out of business.

The final law also does not include rules forcing states to allow double 33-foot trailers. Currently, federal laws permit 28-foot double trailers but only 11 states allow double 33-foot trailers. Proposals to allow CDL drivers between the age of 18 and 21 to cross state lines did not survive.

And, as expected, Congress and the president did not increase the 18.4-cent-per-gallon gas tax, which provides most of the money for the highway bill and hasn’t changed since the mid-'90s.

While there’s praise for the passage of long-term funding for the nation’s transportation system, some of that applause is directed at what lawmakers decided to kick to the curb until next time.

Mark Montague is industry rate analyst for DAT Solutions, which operates the DAT® network of load boards and RateView rate-analysis tool. He has applied his expertise to logistics, rates, and routing for more than 30 years. Mark is based in Portland, Ore. For information, visit www.dat.com.