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Commercial drivers face tighter law

| Monday, Oct. 17, 2005

A new federal law may make it harder for drivers to get and keep a commercial license. The law changes the processes for applying for a license, sanctioning drivers convicted of traffic offenses and recording such offenses.

“The goal is to reduce the number of serious accidents with large trucks and buses,” said Claudine Battisti, community relations coordinator for PennDOT's safety administration. “It's a federal mandate, but we support this because it's making highways safer.”

The law, which went into effect Sept. 30, isn't completely new. It's an improvement to the Motor Carrier Safety Act enacted in 1990.

The original act describes two types of offenses — major and serious. Major offenses could result in lifetime suspension while serious offenses have to accumulate before a driver temporarily is banned from operating a commercial vehicle.

But under the new regulations, it's easier for drivers to rack up disqualifications, for two reasons. Offenses committed in a personal vehicle carry over to a driver's commercial license and so do convictions in other states.

Pennsylvania Motor Truck Associa-tion President Jim Runk said the new law may make roads safer, but it also could cause a problem for the trucking industry.

He said the state already is short on drivers, and because of the new law, companies could lose quality employees.

“A concern of ours is that someone who drove his pickup too fast on the highway now has a violation on his CDL, but he never had a violation in a commercial vehicle,” Runk said. “He may have had 10 years safe driving on his CDL, but we lose that guy for a period of time, and then they decide, ‘Forget this. I'm not driving a truck anymore.'”

But PennDOT officials maintain that if someone is a safe driver, he should be so no matter what vehicle he's operating.

“If you have a commercial driver license or a commercial driver license permit, you are considered a commercial driver whether you are driving a Mack truck or a motorcycle,” PennDOT Secretary Allen Biehler said. “Safe driving has no vehicle boundaries.”

Jim Stewart is a quality control and safety representative for Weleski Transfer in Tarentum. Although he can understand how the changes could affect recruiting and retaining new drivers, he said the 50 drivers Weleski employs shouldn't really be affected.

“Our drivers are working under stringent regulations within the company, so (the new law's) not too big of a difference,” he said.

Weleski is an agent for Atlas Van Lines, based in Indiana. Stewart said Atlas already looks at employees' personal driving records, and if a person has a major offense, that would affect their standing with the company. He said the drivers maintain a strict schedule that allows adequate travel time.

“Their schedules are set so they can maintain a good schedule within the driving rules,” Stewart said.

He suggested the new law would have the strongest effect on independent drivers, who have to find their cusotmers piecemeal and set their own schedules.

Drivers who violate the law could end up with lengthy driving bans and steep fines. The bans vary from 60 days to life depending on the type and number of offenses.

For example, two serious offenses committed within a three-year period will result in a two-month driving ban. Three offenses in the same period will yield a four-month ban.

Drivers will be banned for a year for one major offense and a lifetime for two.

Some examples of major offenses are driving under the influence of alcohol or a controlled substance, leaving the scene of an accident, using a vehicle to commit a felony or causing a fatality through the negligent operation of a commercial vehicle. Fines usually will accompany driving bans. Runk said lawmakers increased the fines for drivers and employers. Some fines have spiked from $500 to $2,750, he said.

Battisti maintains that although the sanctions could be intense, the law is important to highway safety.

“The federal and state governments are constantly looking for ways to improve highway safety, hopefully ensuring commercial drivers are driving safely,” Battisti said. “This impacts all of us because of the amount of large trucks out there.”

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