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DOT: No changes to road rules

DANIEL LOOKER 08/10/2011 @ 9:29am Business Editor

If you haul grain as part of a crop share agreement with your landlord, you’re not going to have to get a commercial driver’s license (CDL).

That’s what the Department of Transportation says in an official guidance issued today, hoping to calm members of Congress and farm groups who feared a new set of burdensome regulations.

Instead, the Department is not changing any federal rules that apply to requirements for CDLs for farmers.

“These common sense provisions we have now will continue to be available,” Deputy Secretary John Porcari, told Agriculture.com. “We are definitely saying crop sharing does not trigger a commercial drivers license.”

But that issue instigated the recent furor over CDLs in the farm community. Farmers worried that some states were about to interpret crop sharing as a commercial arrangement that would trigger a CDL. So the Department’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration sought comments in the Federal Register on three issues:

  • what distinguishes intra- and interstate commerce for operation of a commercial motor vehicle in a state;
  • the issue of whether a farmer transporting supplies or crops under a crop sharing agreement needs a CDL;
  • and whether farm equipment should be considered commercial vehicles.

Porcari said the Department’s goal is to make sure states don’t make any changes that go against common sense in those three areas. The rules aren’t changing, he said.

He said there may have been confusion over the Department’s asking for advice through a public notice on May 31 in the Federal Register. Normally, if a federal agency wants to change regulations, it publishes a proposed rule in the Register, so some people may have thought a new rule was coming.

If the Department wanted advice, its strategy worked. It got about 1,700 responses from the National Association of Wheat Growers, National Farmers Union and others. And earlier this month a bipartisan group of 22 senators sent the Department a letter. All opposed any changes.

Senator Chuck Grassley, one of the signers of the letter, told reporters Tuesday that new rules from the Department “are going to add very unnecessary regulations to farming but not improve transportation safety.”

Porcari said the department doesn’t want to do anything to burden the agricultural sector of the economy. “We see this as a jobs issue.”

Here’s a summary of the Department’s official guidance:

  • Interstate vs. intrastate commerce. Since the difference between the two has been determined by the U.S. Supreme Court and other Federal courts, FMCSA has limited flexibility to provide additional guidelines.  The Agency has concluded that new regulatory guidance concerning the distinction between interstate and intrastate commerce is not necessary.  Generally, the states and the industry have a common understanding on this point. To the extent that fact-specific questions arise, the Agency will work with the States and the industry to provide a clarification for the specific scenario.
  • Commercial Driver's License. Federal regulations allow states to make exceptions to Commercial Driver's License (CDL) regulations for certain farm vehicle drivers such as farm employees and family members, as long as their vehicles are not used by “for-hire” motor carriers. Some states have questioned whether this exemption applies to drivers who work for “crop share” or similar arrangements. FMCSA’s notice includes guidance to ensure consistent application of the exemption. After considering the public comments, the Agency has determined that farmers who rent their land for a share of the crops and haul their own and the landlord’s crops to market should have access to the agricultural CDL exemptions given by the states.   
  • Implements of Husbandry. In a perfect world, farm vehicles would only operate on farms, while commercial trucks would operate on public roads. The reality is that farm equipment that is not designed or intended for everyday use on public roads is often used for short trips at limited speeds. This creates a gray area for classification. After considering the public comments, FMCSA has determined that most States have already adopted common sense enforcement practices that allow farmers to safely move equipment to and from their fields.  In areas where farm implements are common, the enforcement community and the agricultural community have achieved a mutual understanding of which safety regulations should apply to farm equipment on their public roads.

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