New Highway Law Allows Too-Low Insurance, Hides Safety Scores

On Dec. 4, President Obama signed into law a $305 billion transportation bill, the first long-term highway spending in a decade. While many drivers will appreciate these coming improvements to highways and mass transit systems, the president himself noted, “This bill is not perfect.”

Indeed it is not.

There are at least two major flaws that protect trucking companies at the risk of ordinary motorists in the new law, called the FAST Act (Fixing America’s Surface Transportation).

Once again, the trucking industry has managed to fend off the commonsense requirement that carriers buy a respectable level of liability insurance. This is needed to cover the modern-day costs of medical bills and other financial losses of crash victims. As noted earlier, it has been 30 years since the last time the minimum insurance requirement was changed! That minimum is a mere $750,000 – which today is not nearly enough for the costs of serious injuries and deaths that can come from a collision with an 18-wheeler. While the major companies do carry impressive levels of insurance – some up to $50 million – small companies, those with four trucks or fewer, successfully lobbied away the proposed increase. The new law requires a full study of the commercial impacts and safety benefits of raising the minimum requirement – a delay that is profoundly unnecessary.

container truck on the bridge with motion blur , modern logistics background
container truck on the bridge with motion blur , modern logistics background

A second major weakness in the FAST Act is the fact that the public will no longer have access to key driver and maintenance safety scores for trucking and bus companies. Just minutes after the highway bill was signed, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) pulled down the safety scores as required in the new law. This scoring system represents the heart of the FMCSA’s Compliance, Safety Accountability (CSA) initiative – an effort to make our highways safer. The safety scores rated trucking companies on key criteria, including unsafe driving, hours on the job, driver fitness, drug and alcohol use, truck maintenance, mishandling of hazardous materials, and an analysis of crashes, including frequency and severity. What information could be more useful to those who have a highway encounter with a truck? Notably, this data is no longer available for victims of crashes and their lawyers, who will no longer be able to show juries how a careless carrier compares to the competition.

Now, the FMCSA must review the scoring program and find ways to make it “the most reliable” system possible. As noted previously, trucking critics had complained that the program wasn’t fair, and that some companies were penalized by “minor infractions.” But the same criteria were used for everyone, so that argument is hard to swallow. It is ironic that soon after the scores were removed, some truck drivers noted voiced their disappointment because they had “worked hard” for their good ratings and now have no evidence to show for that.

The FAST Act is not all doom and gloom, however. Two of the scariest proposals that had been discussed did not make it into the final bill signed into law:

  • Heavier, longer trucks – making them potentially even deadlier – will not be allowed on our highways.
  • Nor will there be a stampede toward hiring drivers under age 21. Instead, there will be a pilot program to test drivers between 18 and 21 taking trucks across state lines. The study will be done by the FMCSA and focused on drivers who are former members of the military or reserves.