The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) is seeking to repeal a statutory exemption to hours of service (HOS) rules for agricultural haulers and utility fleets due to increased crashes and out-of-service rates in this trucking segment. But the move is being hotly contested by the agricultural lobby on Capitol Hill.

"It is critical that agriculture in the U.S. is able to depend on this exemption to move their commodities from farm to fork," said David Schroyer, president of Schroyer Truck & Trailer Sales and a member of the Agricultural Education Group (AEG), a newly formed group that aims to preserve the agricultural HOS exemption. The exemption was codified into law by Congress via the last round of highway funding reauthorization legislation in 2005.

"It applies to only agricultural commodities transported within a 100-air-mile radius from the point of harvest to the point of processing, and farm supplies during the planting and harvest seasons," Fletcher Hall, chairman & CEO of public affairs firm F.R. Hall & Associates and past executive of the Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference, told FleetOwner.

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The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) is seeking to repeal a statutory exemption to hours of service (HOS) rules for agricultural haulers and utility fleets due to increased crashes and out-of-service rates in this trucking segment. But the move is being hotly contested by the agricultural lobby on Capitol Hill.

"It is critical that agriculture in the U.S. is able to depend on this exemption to move their commodities from farm to fork," said David Schroyer, president of Schroyer Truck & Trailer Sales and a member of the Agricultural Education Group (AEG), a newly formed group that aims to preserve the agricultural HOS exemption. The exemption was codified into law by Congress via the last round of highway funding reauthorization legislation in 2005.

"It applies to only agricultural commodities transported within a 100-air-mile radius from the point of harvest to the point of processing, and farm supplies during the planting and harvest seasons," Fletcher Hall, chairman & CEO of public affairs firm F.R. Hall & Associates and past executive of the Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference, told FleetOwner.

"The issue is the agricultural industry has a limited time window for harvesting and food processing, as well as the planting and fertilizing of seed – a time window dictated by Mother Nature, not humans," he said. "Repealing this exemption will have a devastating impact on agriculture and could result in price increases for food products for consumers."

Not so fast, says Steve Keppler, CVSA director of policy & programs. Keppler told FleetOwner that CVSA doesn't want to completely eliminate the exemption. Rather, they want to change it to a regulatory instead of a statutory exemption—which would allow safety agencies to periodically review and judge performance.

"There's already a regulatory process established for obtaining HOS exemptions and we feel they should use it," he explained to FleetOwner. "Our concern is that crashes and out-of-service rates for vehicles and drivers have increased in the agricultural sector over the last four years that this exemption has been in place. That's the wrong direction [to go] in terms of highway safety."

Keppler pointed to a recently released study by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Volpe National Transportation Systems Center that found that agricultural carriers operating exclusively within a 100-mile radius had a 19% higher crash rate than agricultural carriers operating outside a 100-mile radius between 2005 and 2007. That study also reported utility-service motor carrier crash rates jumped by 40% during this same period.

The study also showed that in 2007 agricultural carriers as a whole had higher violation and out-of-service rates than the rest of the trucking industry in the categories of unsafe driver, driver fitness, vehicle maintenance, and improper loading. And carriers operating solely within a 100-mile radius recorded a 24% higher violation rate across those categories than ones operating outside that radius, he noted.

"Our view is that exemptions are a privilege, not a right – that if they are not justified based on performance data, or pursued in a uniform and systematic manner, it not only compromises safety it also violates the basic principle of uniformity," Keppler said. "Besides, if you are going to give a blanket statutory exemption that cannot be reviewed based on safety performance, why bother having safety regulations at all?"

That being said, Keppler noted that CVSA recognizes economic issues are in play here, so the group's goal is to set an expiration date for the statutory exemption some months in the future. That would give both agricultural and utility fleets time to be re-qualified under the regulatory guidelines for HOS exemptions.

"We understand the economic ramifications, especially for agricultural haulers. We're sensitive to that. That's why we're not asking for this statutory exemption to be cut off tomorrow," he said. "We want to set a firm date in the future to give agricultural and utility fleets time to make their pitch for an exemption to FMCSA [Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration]. We don't think we're being unreasonable with this."