Noise But No Action

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Debate takes new directions in wake of high-profile crash

 

By Matthew Wrobel, Foley Services

Anyone who has been in the motor carrier industry for a while will be familiar with the hours of service regulations fight. Outside of our world, however, the topic rarely, if ever, gets any attention.

That seems to have changed in the last few weeks, as fallout from the crash involving comedian Tracy Morgan has pushed Hours of Service regulations into the mainstream media and made it the topic of the day in both houses of Congress.

Tracy Morgan Crash

As we first reported in the July issue of Oil & Energy, Morgan, along with several other comedians and his entourage, was returning to New York City having performed in a Delaware casino. About 45 miles south of the city, in Cranberry Township, their luxury van was struck at high speed from behind by a tractor-trailer, overturning it and setting off a chain reaction crash that involved four additional vehicles.

Comedian James McNair was pronounced dead at the scene of the accident. Morgan and his assistant, Jeff Millea, were both critically injured and had to be airlifted from the scene. Morgan, Millea and another comedian Ardie Fuqua, remained in critical condition for several days after the accident.

The driver of the tractor-trailer has been charged with one count of death by auto and four counts of assault by auto. He is out on $50,000 bond and is currently awaiting trial.

Congress and the Media

By sheer coincidence, the crash occurred a few days after Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins had added  a measure to an appropriations bill that would roll back the requirement that drivers rest for 34 consecutive hours including two nights between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. before beginning the next work week after reaching their 70/80 hour working limits.

In the aftermath of the crash, Senator Collins’ move was widely reported in the media, earning both praise and criticism from various factions.

Last week, Senator Corey Booker (D-NJ) unveiled the Democrats’ response, which would undo the changes that Senator Collins proposed. “Truck accidents are on the rise, and driver fatigue is a leading cause,” Booker said.

That proposal, however, was removed from consideration when Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) pulled the entire fiscal 2015 funding bill from the floor after Republicans raised several procedural objections. As both proposals are in the Senate, an equivalent proposal would need to be passed through the House.

At the current time, it appears that while the hours of service issue has become part of the mainstream debate in Congress, it has also fallen in the gridlock that paralyzes so many issues. While the situation remains fluid, it seems unlikely that the proposals by either Senator Collins or Booker will see the President’s desk any time soon.

Prospect of Rule Changes

While it is encouraging for many motor carriers to see one of the biggest challenges facing the industry being debated in such a big arena, the prospect of a rule change in the near future is probably low.

The current rules have been challenged in Federal court, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was deemed to be acting legally. Unless new action can be taken, that avenue is closed. While voices in Congress are speaking out against hours of service now, remember it was Congress that ordered the rules to be changed in the first place. Gridlock remains a persistent problem.

Our view is that while they may be unpopular, carriers should be prepared for the rules to remain in their current format for the next several years at least.

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