LAW MANDATES BACKGROUND CHECKS FOR HAZMAT HAULERS
President Bush signed a sweeping anti-terrorism law Oct. 26 that mandates background checks into the criminal record and immigration status of every trucker seeking a hazmat license, including those seeking to renew existing licenses.
Whereas hauling small amounts of hazardous material, such as might be sent via UPS or FedEx, did not previously require a hazmat license, the new law makes no distinction between hauling a few ounces or a few tons.
The U.S. Department of Transportation says the checks won’t begin until the rules for conducting them have been worked out.
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association questions the usefulness of background checks, arguing that carriers have aggressively recruited foreign nationals as drivers for the past 10 years and have made little use of the background information already available.
“The entry requirements to be a truck driver are so meager, and normal hiring practices of motor carriers so lax, an open invitation exists for coordinated plans for mayhem in cities throughout the United States using trucks as the weapon,” says Todd Spencer, OOIDA executive vice president.
A U.S. General Accounting Office study completed in July said munitions security among contract carriers was so lax that someone flashing a phony ID could drive off with a truckload of Cruise missiles. “L.L. Bean can tell you precisely where every package is that’s shipped, but the Pentagon can’t,” said U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who commissioned the study.
In Minnesota the state took down its online list of all the state’s hazmat facilities, complete with maps. Under state law the information remains public, though, available offline to anyone who asks. “There must be some balance we can strike,” says Charlie Weaver, the state’s public safety commissioner, without giving terrorists “a blueprint to destroy us.”
LEASED CONTRACTOR RULED EMPLOYEE
The Nevada Supreme Court ruled that an owner-operator leased to a Las Vegas carrier is an employee under state law, and thus eligible for worker compensation.
Owner-operator Everett Green and his carrier, Hays Home Delivery, “are not independent enterprises, but, instead are in the same trade of delivering merchandise,” and Green’s services “would normally be carried on through an employee,” the court ruled in the case of Hays Home Delivery vs. Employers Insurance Company of Nevada.
Nevada law, which explicitly says that independent contractors may be deemed employees, is “uniquely different” from that of other states, the court says, so no wave of owner-operator claims is expected nationwide. Indeed, laws in 29 states specifically say owner-operators are not employees.
TOLLS INCREASING AT PEACE BRIDGE
The new year will bring higher tolls to the Peace Bridge, which spans the Niagara River between Buffalo, N.Y., and Fort Erie, Ontario.
The current toll of 41 cents per ton will be replaced by a toll scale based on the number of axles, which means deadhead loads will be charged as much as full ones.
The new tolls coincide with new management, as E-ZPass becomes the bridge’s toll collector Jan. 1. Trucks using the E-ZPass system, which collects tolls electronically, will pay less than trucks paying cash but still more than the present rate.
For example, a loaded five-axle rig weighing 80,000 pounds, or 40 tons, now pays 41 cents times 40, or $16.40. Starting Jan. 1, it will pay a flat five-axle rate of $22 cash or $19.80 via E-ZPass.
For the complete new rate scale, visit www.peacebridge.com.
OVERLOADED COAL TRUCKS: OLD PROBLEM, NEW SCRUTINY
A fatal Sept. 6 accident in Hernshaw, W.Va., involved an overloaded coal truck weighing more than twice that highway’s legal limit.
Kanawha County prosecutor Mike Clifford, in whose jurisdiction the wreck occurred, vows to crack down on overweight loads. “We are going to start looking into criminal violations, and they will not be limited to the driver of the truck,” Clifford says.
Weight limits in West Virginia reach 80,000 pounds on interstates, but police routinely stop coal trucks weighing as much as 195,000 pounds. Small fleets and owner-operators are paid according to the amount of coal they haul, a decades-long practice that encourages overloading, speeding and sleeplessness, says Bob Stanley, president of the West Virginia Motor Truck Association.
“Some drivers get to the mine at 2 a.m. to be in line for the first load of the day, and they’re still at it when it comes time for the last load of the day,” Stanley says. “We don’t have any roads in West Virginia built to withstand 180,000 pounds, and the vehicles aren’t designed to be driven safely at these weights either. So it not only puts the trucker in jeopardy, it puts everyone on the road in jeopardy.”
Furthermore, the truckers bear all the liability when accidents occur, though it’s the shippers and receivers who make the profit, Stanley says. “You don’t find much wealth in the hands of the people who haul coal,” he says. “It’s almost a hand-to-mouth existence.”
The West Virginia Coal Association, which represents the coal companies, wants the state legislature to raise weight limits to 140,000 pounds, to reflect the capacity of today’s powerful, better-designed coal trucks. But higher weight limits haven’t eliminated the problem in the coalfields of neighboring Kentucky, which allows 120,000 pounds by special permit, Stanley says. “That’s just the higher base from which they start, because they’re running overweight, too.”
According to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, 10 coal-truck drivers have been killed nationwide in accidents on mine property alone since 1995 – the most recent being Nov. 1 in Kanawha County, W.Va.