FMCSA Administrator grilled in Congress over speed-limiter mandate pursuit

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Troy Nehls, Robin Hutcheson
Texas Rep. Troy Nehls urged FMCSA Administrator Robin Hutcheson in a House Highways and Transit hearing to "listen to the truckers" when it comes to any speed-limiter mandate and safety impacts.

A hearing of the House of Representatives' Highways and Transit Subcommittee Wednesday saw opening testimony from Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration chief Robin Hutcheson stress the work her agency has put into implementing provisions of the 2021 infrastructure law, the express subject of the hearing with other administration heads as well. Yet much of the questioning from reps was directed at something not included in that law at all. Namely, subcommittee members grilled the FMCSA administrator about the wisdom of the FMCSA's moves toward mandating speed-limiter use by commercial motor carriers.

Questions from Republican Rep. Eric Burlison of Missouri typified the exchanges, as he relayed constituent truckers' concerns with a variety of regulations, including the limitations on operating time in the hours of service. He cast a speed limiting device mandate as an adding-insult-to-injury situation for drivers already taxed by a parking shortage and those time limitations, trying to find an adequate spot to rest. "Now you're telling them they'll have to reach their destinations at a slower pace" with a speed-limiter mandate, he said. "When is enough enough?" 

Any on-highway situation in which a driver needed to make up time, he added, might spill into areas where no one wants a speeding vehicle of any kind, much less a large truck. With speed limiters, the "only place to make up time [might be] on city streets, in suburbs or construction zones," he said. "Could this reduce safety?"

Administrator Hutcheson throughout the hearing deflected questions like this with acknowledgment of the in-process nature of any speed-limiter rule. Currently, the agency has accepted comments on a speed-limiter Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and hasn't issued any subsequent proposal, she said routinely each time the subject was broached. To Burlison, she noted she "shared your commitment to drivers, certainly to their safety," as well that of others on the roadway. "We're under way in a process of rulemaking for speed limiters." 

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Burlison shot back: "I would encourage you to not implement that rule." 

Jeff Van Drew (R-New Jersey), later, concurred. "It is a bad idea."

[Related: FMCSA's new boss emphasizes compensation, detention issues

The hearing, titled "Oversight of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: Modal Perspectives," featured testimony from leaders of Department of Transportation agencies from the Federal Highway Administration to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and others. Subcommittee Chairman Rick Crawford (R-Arkansas) in some ways set up the speed-limiter focus with an opening statement noting that, in his view, though the IIJA law significantly increased funding for infrastructure improvement and the agencies, the "bill was not a blank check for the administration to pursue ancillary policies." 

Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Texas) went so far as to question the credibility of the speed-limiter rulemaking by referencing a keynote speech he said Hutcheson gave at a fund-raising event "sponsored by labor unions and large trucking companies," among others. Press material distributed in the hearing's aftermath by the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association suggested the event in question was billed as a fundraiser for the Truck Safety Coalition, a crash victims' and safety advocacy group. Sponsors shown on press around the event included the so-called "Trucking Alliance" of large motor carriers, which like the TSC itself has voiced support for a speed-limiter mandate.

Might it hurt credibility "to keynote a fund-raiser for advocates on one side of the [speed-limiter] issue" with a rulemaking in process? Nehls asked.   

Though Hutcheson wasn't given much of an opportunity to respond, she quickly assured the rep that "we take very seriously the fidelity of the process of rulemaking" and don't discuss the contents of rules in process during stakeholder engagements such as the one referenced, though never named. At another point in the hearing, she expressly noted, for that matter, working with OOIDA and other associations on a variety of issues. 

FMCSA did not immediately respond to questions related to the TSC event in question, yet when they did, Office of Communications Director Cicely Waters noted that the event OOIDA flagged, which was billed to occur September 29 this year, was in fact not attended by Administrator Hutcheson at all. The Administrator "did not provide a keynote address or attend the referenced event," Waters said. 

Nehls went on to urge Hutcheson to "listen to the truckers," to "seriously consider the 15,000 comments" filed in response to the speed-limiter ANPRM, most opposing the very idea, as previously reported.

[Related: Speed-limiter mandate: Owner-operators call out FMCSA's misplaced priorities

Hutcheson had addressed that recommendation earlier in response to questioning from Illinois Rep. Mike Bost, who raised the worry among many that speed-limiting devices in widespread use at speeds lower than posted limits could have a net safety-negative effect. "We’re working through a rulemaking process," Hutcheson said, referencing the voluminous commentary. On speed-differential research Bost noted, conducted in his home state when there was a 10-mph difference between the posted limit for cars and for trucks, "the regulatory impact analysis will consider the research," she added.  

Hutcheson went to lengths throughout the hearing to express admiration for drivers and consideration of their concerns, and emphasized engagement efforts implemented as a direct result of the infrastructure law -- including the ongoing work of the Women of Trucking Advisory Board and Truck Leasing Task Force, likewise the agency's detention and driver-compensation examinations.

Other aspects of the infrastructure law or otherwise germane to trucking that saw some discussion:

[Related: Are FMCSA and NHTSA skirting Congressional directive with AEB proposal?]

The full hearing is available via the video below.