- Associated Press - Sunday, June 21, 2015

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi’s transportation commissioners are urging U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran to help squash a proposal that would force the state to allow larger double-trailer trucks on its roads.

“I don’t like Congress mandating that states do this,” said Central District Transportation Commissioner Dick Hall, who signed a letter to Cochran, R-Miss., along with the state’s other two elected commissioners. “I’m a whole lot more interested in the safety of Mississippi’s drivers than I am the financial welfare of a national corporation.”

National highway safety advocates also are fighting the measure, along with another passed by the House that would extend a freeze on stricter regulations on when and how long truckers must rest between long hauls.

Mississippi is one of 39 states that does not allow “double 33s,” or two 33-foot trailers to be pulled behind a single truck. The state allows double 28-foot trailers, but Hall said “I’m not a fan of double trailers, period.”

Highway safety advocates say there have been alarming increases in truck-crash deaths and injuries and regulations should be tightened. Shipping interests say the growth of e-commerce and demands to reduce ground transportation costs and increase efficiency call for relaxed regulations. The fight has waxed and waned in Congress for years.

“Essentially there would be trains on our highways,” said Joan Claybrook, co-chairman of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety and past administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “. And tired truckers will continue to be on our roads.”

With the Internet-driven boom in shipping lightweight packages, shippers such as FedEx are filling trailers that don’t come near the federal 80,000-pound weight limit and say the larger, double trailers would increase efficiency. FedEx CEO Fred Smith has said allowing two larger trailers behind a truck would add 18 percent capacity without increasing the number of trucks on the road or miles traveled and would conserve fuel and reduce carbon emissions.

The U.S. House, under lobbying pressure from FedEx and other major shippers, has passed a $55-billion Transportation and Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill with the trucking law measures tacked on as “riders.” Mississippi U.S. Reps. Gregg Harper, Trent Kelly and Steven Palazzo, all Republicans, voted for the bill, Democrat Bennie Thompson against.

Another rider on the bill would extend one successfully championed last year by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. It postponed a law requiring truckers after working for 70 hours to take a 34-hour break, with no driving between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. for two consecutive days. The 34-hour break would remain under the current House bill, but without the consecutive 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. requirement.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, of which Cochran is chairman, is expected to begin working up its version of the transportation spending bill soon, with the same interests lobbying to include the trucking measures - and perhaps others, including raising the allowable trucker work week from 70 hours to 82 hours.

Cochran has said he will allow full and open debate of the issues in his committee.

President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the House version of the bill, should it reach his desk, over concern it underfunds federal programs and includes the trucking and other riders.

Jim Richards, president of Richland-based trucking company KLLM and chairman of the Mississippi Trucking Association, said he personally has safety concerns about the double 33-foot trailers.

“This doesn’t affect KLLM - most of what we handle in a single 53-foot trailer hits the 80,000-pound max gross weight,” Richards said. “My concerns are primarily safety concerns. We have a much younger driving force, as everybody struggles to hire qualified drivers. We already have infrastructure problems. Our infrastructure was built many years ago, when we had single 40-foot trailers, and even today with the 53-foot trailers we have you see trucks struggle to maneuver turns.”

Richards said MTA has not taken a position on continuing the freeze on the stricter “34-hour restart” regulation. But he said he’s confident the association, and most of his industry, supports continuing its suspension. He said the regulation may be well intended, but it hampers drivers’ ability to make a living and companies’ productivity and hasn’t been proven to reduce crashes.

Richards said the 34-hour restart is fine, but the two consecutive 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. rest requirement would keep drivers down for more than 34 hours.

Collins, in pushing the freeze on the regulations, argued the overnight rest requirement would put more trucks on the road during peak traffic congestion and when children are traveling.

Richards said regulations should focus instead on mandating electronic logs - to ensure hour limitations are really being enforced - and other safety technology. He said his company’s 4,000 trucks running nationwide are already equipped with electronic logs, anti-rollover, blind spot and other safety technology that isn’t federally mandated.

“We all want to do everything we can to make highways safer,” Richards said. “We spend a lot of money and a lot of effort on safety, but we want it to be on things that work.”

MDOT Enforcement Director Willie Huff said his agency, along with the Department of Public Safety, enforces federal laws on drivers’ hours. Currently, truckers can be on duty up to 14 hours a day, but can only be driving for 11 of those hours. They can work up to 70 hours in eight consecutive days, but then must be off for 34 hours.

“We are against any efforts that affect the safety and rest period for drivers,” Huff said. “Our geometry on our roadways is not designed for these larger trailers. And what some people may not realize is that these larger trailers would be allowed to get into areas off the interstate. Federal law says that if they are allowed, then state and local governments cannot pass a law to preclude them on their streets.”

In their letter to Cochran, Mississippi’s transportation commissioners said allowing double 33 trailers “would endanger motorists, worsen our crumbling roads and increase the fiscal burden shouldered by Mississippi taxpayers.”

“If longer-truck proponents desire the authority to operate longer double-trailer trucks and can demonstrate why Mississippians should permit them,” the letter said, “they should present their agenda to the Mississippi Transportation Commission and state Legislature to make their case - not to the federal government.”

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