Truck Safety, Driver Age Spur Advocate Divisions on Highway Bill

  • House, Senate bills divide industry groups and advocates
  • Fights set over automatic braking, liability insurance

Plans to require automatic emergency braking, increase liability insurance for trucking, and allow younger truck drivers are dividing industry and advocacy groups pressing Congress to pass a new highway bill.

The potential for new vehicle technology mandates and costs in the five-year surface transportation legislation working its way through the House and Senate carries high stakes for trucking interests and safety advocates as well.

“We’re talking to everybody,” said Cathy Chase, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which has held press conferences with lawmakers and sent recent letters to administration officials to get more safety provisions in the final bill. “We will continue pushing and lobbying and advocating until that pen is in the President’s hand signing this bill into law.”

The House passed its more than $715 billion surface transportation bill (H.R. 3684) largely along party lines earlier this month, while the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee advanced its portion of the highway bill (S. 2016) last month.

Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images
Investigators look over the scene of a crash between an SUV and a semi-truck full of gravel near Holtville, Calif. on March 2, 2021.

Some trucking organizations prefer the more moderate Senate language, while safety advocates are seeking to push the House further in their direction and are even personally appealing to President Joe Biden, who lost his first wife and a daughter to a car accident in 1972.

Surface transportation programs expire Sept. 30. House Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) said last month that the next step could be an informal conference to bring together the House bill’s policies and the larger bipartisan infrastructure framework negotiated between senators and the Biden administration.

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‘Falling Short’

Auto safety advocates say the Senate legislation, compared with the House measure, is “falling short” by including studies and more lenient requirements as substitutes for agency directives on safety standards, including for side and front underride guards on trailers and single-unit trucks to stop cars from going under trucks in crashes.

However, safety advocates are still pushing for both the House and Senate bills to go further on automatic emergency braking and require it in all new cars and trucks; currently both measures would exempt small- and medium-size trucks. Chase said thousands of people could be saved annually with the technology at a time when fatalities are increasing.

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Americans drove less last year because of the pandemic, yet an estimated 38,680 people died in traffic crashes — the highest number of annual fatalities since 2007, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimates that emergency braking systems paired with forward collision warnings could cut down more than two out of five crashes where a big truck rear-ends another vehicle. Collision warning and prevention systems can use radar, cameras, sensors, or a combination to detect vehicles, pedestrians, and other obstacles, and automated systems go a step further by applying the brakes.

Some trucking groups are concerned that automatic emergency braking needs more development. Jay Grimes, regulatory affairs director at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said some of their members have tried the technology and found there can be false alarms. He called it “questionable” whether it would always work at night.

“We’re not sure that it’s quite ready for prime-time yet,” Grimes said.

Younger Truckers

Grimes said his group deems the Senate Commerce bill “a little better” than that of the House, and will lobby particularly to remove the increase to carriers’ minimum required liability insurance, which the House measure would boost to $2 million from $750,000. Stopping that increase is his group’s “No. 1 priority as we move to a potential conference,” he said.

“That’s going to be really devastating,” Grimes said. “It’s likely going to have an unintended consequence of probably making roads less safe and more dangerous if you take these people that have been in business for years off the roads because they can’t afford the insurance rates.”

The Senate Commerce Committee adopted a contentious amendment that would establish a pilot program to allow truckers under the age of 21 to operate with a commercial driver’s license in an apprenticeship program.

“Instead of tapping into more dangerous, younger, inexperienced drivers, the industry should focus on making improvements to the current driving and safety conditions,” Chase said.

Trucking groups disagree over younger drivers. The Owner-Operators group doesn’t support the provision allowing truckers younger than 21, saying retention should be the industry’s goal. Others, such as the American Trucking Associations, support it, saying younger drivers would help alleviate shortages.

“This pro-safety, pro-jobs provision will strengthen the U.S. supply chain with a new and rigorous apprenticeship program, bolstering the trucking workforce and raising safety and training standards for its emerging members,” American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear said in a statement after the Senate Commerce panel advanced its bill.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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