Witnesses offered the House Highway and Transit differing views on a wide array of trucking priorities as Congress faces reauthorization of surface transportation legislation.
Working conditions for truck drivers and safety are two areas that Congress should address in its next surface transportation reauthorization legislation, witnesses told the House Highway and Transit Subcommittee on Wednesday.
“The pressures on carriers and drivers are extraordinary these days and the policies that we enact here in the next surface bill will have a major impact on public safety, carrier operations, truck driver wages and working conditions,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said during his opening statement. “If you want to attract and retain quality drivers, you need policies that ensure trucking remains a good job with adequate compensation.”
A March article published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics argued there would be no shortage of drivers if wages were improved enough. The article stated the shortage issues were concentrated in long-distance truckload motor freight, but the authors noted the issues were not visible in the aggregate data and required a distinct analysis.
“LTL carriers don’t complain about driver shortage, nor do private carriers. The reason is pay, benefits and working conditions,” said Todd Spencer, the president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. “I really can’t think of a worse response to the myth of the driver solution than to reduce the driver age or reduce the already low standards to get a CDL. This really is a highway safety issue.”
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced earlier this month it is accepting applications for a pilot program to permit 18- to 20-year-olds who possess the U.S. military equivalent of a commercial driver’s license to operate large trucks in interstate commerce. It also is seeking public comment about a second potential pilot program allowing drivers 18 to 20 to operate commercial motor vehicles in interstate commerce even without the military experience.
Currently, drivers ages 18 to 21 may only operate in intrastate commerce.
Companion bills were introduced in both chambers of Congress earlier this year that would require drivers under 21 to go through a two-step program of additional training once they meet their CDL requirements. They would be required to complete at least 400 hours of on-duty time and 240 hours of driving time with experienced drivers, and all trucks used for training must be equipped with active braking collision mitigating systems, forward-facing video event capture and a speed governor.
Spencer, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety President Cathy Chase and Lamont Byrd, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters director of health and safety, all told the subcommittee they opposed lowering the driving age. Chase said drivers under 21 are “four to six times more likely to be involved in a fatal truck crash.”
Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations, supported the DRIVE-Safe Act that was introduced.
“This is a step toward safety, not away,” said Chris Spear about the DRIVE-Safe Act.
Subcommittee Chairwoman Eleanor Norton, D-D.C., said truck fatalities have increased about 40% since 2009 and saw a 10% jump between 2016 and 2017. Chase said legislation should ensure that speed limiters, electronic logging devices, lane departure warning systems and automatic emergency braking are required as standard trucking equipment.
Truck safety advocate and attorney Andy Young said there needs to be a mandate requiring underride guards on trucks.
Spear, however, raised concerns about the added weight underride guards would add to trailers and questioned if they would compromise structural integrity. Instead, he said to use the 5.9 GHz band to connect the trailer with other vehicles to avoid collisions altogether.
“It’s a different way to get at the side underguards and the rear guards,” he said. “I’d like to take an approach where the accident doesn’t happen at all. … Connectivity I think could solve a lot of the problem and lower the fatality rate in getting us to zero.”
Spear also said the state of the country’s infrastructure results in trucking accidents. In written testimony, he advocated for a 20 cent-per-gallon fee to be built into the price of transportation fuels collected at the terminal rack and phased in over four years, which would generate nearly $240 billion over the first 10 years.
Spencer also said “small business truckers” would like to see the highway trust fully funded through user fees.
Spear said, “There’s a lot more accidents out there happening as a result of the lack of infrastructure investment in this country. … We have to find ways to be safer given the current decaying infrastructure that we’re being dealt.”
Last month, President Donald Trump abruptly ended a meeting at the White House with congressional Democrats about infrastructure after agreeing to aim for a $2 trillion spend in April.
The 48-member Problem Solvers caucus recently released its plan to fund infrastructure investment, which included modernizing user fees, incentivizing public-private partnerships, making smarter investments with limited federal dollars and increasing accountability to taxpayers.
Cindy Brown Barnes, director of the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s Education Workforce and Income Security team, said in audio accompanying a recently published GAO “WatchBlog” that “it’s too soon to tell” the impact automated trucks will have on long-haul drivers.
Several of the panelists agreed that certain automated technology would make truck driving safer. Spear said driver-assist technology will continue to grow but he doesn’t see an immediate future of driverless automation.
“We’re not going driverless tomorrow, not five, probably not 50 years out. It’ll come someday,” he said. “We have pilots in planes for a reason. … You’re going to have drivers in trucks for a long time.”
Byrd said he thinks drivers will continue to play “quite a significant role” in final-mile delivery, even if autonomous vehicles become more prevalent on highways.
“Autonomous vehicle technology holds the potential to improve truck safety and efficiency, but the potential job degradation or replacement puts our members on edge,” Byrd said. “Congress should demand proof and accountability for any new autonomous systems that are introduced so that these systems don’t add to the incredible pressure these drivers are already experiencing.