It's time to watch out for Washington's lame ducks
The end of a President's administration is often the time that federal agencies try to shove a lot of regulations out the door. This time is no exception, and trucking seems to be in for more than its share. Although some of these may not make it into print, fleets should know what may hit them.
The best known, of course, are DOT's rules on hours of service and the proposed regulation on ergonomics from OSHA. Trucking and other industries have been working to slow these down, if not stop them outright. At press time it was unclear as to whether they would succeed.
EPA is pushing hard to get out rules to reduce diesel emissions by mandating cleaner-burning heavy-duty truck engines that will operate properly only if the sulfur content of diesel fuel is drastically reduced. All parties agree that the rules will cost billions of dollars but there is wide disagreement as to how many billions, how soon either the engine standards or low-sulfur standards should be put in place, and whether current diesel fuel should continue to be available once the new fuel is required for new trucks. These issues may delay the issuance of the rule or its eventual effective date.
Vehicle buyers with long replacement cycles will need to pay attention to the rule as soon as it comes out, however. Based on past rule changes affecting fuel and engines, it is likely that manufacturers' order books for delivery of current equipment just before the rule change takes effect will fill up fast.
EPA is working on at least two other rules that will affect fleets. A final rule scheduled for late this year may regulate emissions of diesel exhaust from all mobile sources, and a proposed rule anticipated in mid-2001 would address emissions from off-road sources such as construction equipment and possibly forklifts.
In mid-October, EPA's Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee finally approved an EPA document that calls diesel fuel a "likely human carcinogen." Although this assessment is more tentative than EPA had sought in earlier drafts, the agency may still use the finding to defend stricter regulation of diesel emissions. State agencies may also rely on the report to tighten their regulations.
Labor Dept. agencies other than OSHA may also be ready to race to the Federal Register to get their rules in print. The Pension and Welfare Benefits Administration is rumored to be ready with a final version of a rule it proposed two years ago that requires companies to make numerous changes in the way claims for health and pension benefits are handled. Employer and benefits groups complained that the original rules would have been far more costly than the agency estimated, but it is not known if the final version will be any easier to live with.
Meanwhile, the office that sets rules for federal contractors may finalize controversial regulations that would debar (or "blacklist," opponents say) contractors that are deemed to have violated one of numerous specified practices.
The bottom line: Trucking, more than most industries, is affected by a wide range of federal agencies. Carrier executives may bemoan this, but it has an advantage, too: As rules get more intricate, nonspecialists - private fleets, for example - are more likely to hand their business over to full-time experts. Thus, it can pay to invest now in learning the changes in store regarding all the rules that could affect your personnel, vehicles and business practices.