Sen. Pat Roberts led a bipartisan group of Senators in asking the Department of Transportation to give farmers more time to weigh in on possible new rules governing farm vehicles that are driven on public roads.
Alarmed by Transportation Department scrutiny of rules for tractors and other farm vehicles, agriculture lobbyists have enlisted the help of more than a dozen Senators in a campaign to forestall strict new regulations.
Farmers fear the department will expand existing safety rules governing commercial drivers such as long-haul truckers to apply them to farmers driving tractors, trailers and other types of agricultural vehicles off the farm. Under pressure from farmers and their allies on Capitol Hill, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has extended its public comment period on a series of proposed new guidelines for farm vehicle safety.
Federal highway laws have long exempted farmers driving on public roads from certain commercial vehicle regulations during planting and harvest seasons for trips of 100 miles or less. Drivers of these farm vehicles do not need to obtain commercial driver's licenses, carry medical documents showing they are fit to drive or limit their hours on the road as commercial drivers do.
But states have implemented the federal rules inconsistently, and some highway safety advocates have argued that tractors and other farm vehicles need more oversight. On May 31 the FMCSA announced it was considering new guidelines that would potentially regulate tractors and other farm vehicles more stringently.
Farmers reacted swiftly, meeting with FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro to voice concerns and beg for more time. The administration's request for comment came smack in the middle of planting season, farmers complained. Farmers also approached Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and other Senate allies for help.
Roberts, ranking member on the Agriculture Committee, last month wrote to Ferro to request that the window for public comment on the proposed safety guidelines be extended by 90 days. The letter was signed by 17 other Senators, including Jerry Moran, another Kansas Republican.
"If our producers do not get a voice during this critical comment period, they could face significant new burdens in transporting agriculture throughout our country and the world," Roberts said in a statement released with the letter.
Farm Bureau presidents in a half-dozen states, including Kansas and Missouri, also wrote Ferro to ask that she grant farmers more time to weigh in. Ferro complied, extending the public comment period to Aug. 1. But agriculture industry leaders are still worried and are urging farmers to write to Ferro to warn that farmers should not be subject to trucker-style safety rules.
"Tractors don't get on the interstate; they don't carry passengers," said Elizabeth Jones, director of Congressional relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation. Farmers argue that complying with new safety regulations could be burdensome and costly, as could tickets imposed on violators.
Among other questions, the FMCSA is considering whether farmers who drive across state lines or who share a portion of their crops with a landlord should enjoy the vehicle safety exemptions. Should those categories of farmers be required to obtain commercial driver's licenses, a big segment of the industry could face a substantial new regulatory burden, agriculture lobbyists argue.
In the opposite camp, highway safety advocates counter that the rules governing commercial vehicles should be tightened. A long list of groups have won commercial safety rule exemptions, from the agriculture and utility industries to movie producers and grape growers, according to the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, a nonprofit representing the state and local agencies charged with enforcement.
Farmers "do operate big trucks that share the road with other people," said Steve Keppler, executive director of the alliance. The group maintains that multiple exemptions have contributed to confusion, spotty state enforcement and mounting safety hazards. As a nonprofit, the alliance does scant lobbying but is publicly advocating for improved oversight.
Keppler applauded the FMCSA for taking steps to clarify the rules. "I give them credit for putting this out there and taking comments on it," he said. Given farm industry reaction thus far, Ferro should have no shortage of comment letters to look over.