When a license plate just isn't enough

One person’s infuriating government regulation is another’s measure to protect public health and safety. That philosophical split plays out every day in how Michigan is enforcing regulations on commercial motor vehicles.

In recent years, farmers and small businesses that rely on pick-up trucks to haul equipment, supplies and inventories have chafed at the Michigan State Police’s move to enforce a legal requirement that all commercial motor vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 10,000 pounds obtain a U.S. Department of Transportation identification number. The requirement extends even to those businesses that conduct no commerce outside ofMichigan.

Farmers fume that they now have to get the identification number and, more cumbersomely, comply with the inspections and requirements needed to obtain it -- just so they can haul equipment on their farms. Lawn service companies and other businesses are similarly frustrated.

“The question has become, is this really a regulatory scheme that makes sense?” asked Matt Smego, legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau. “Why is Michigan putting itself at a competitive disadvantage?”

Although obtaining the federal identification number is free, to get it, a business has to ensure its drivers meet federal driving qualifications and medical requirements, as well as have their vehicles undergo an annual inspection, among other regulations. Those are costs, at each step of the way to the "free" number.

Exactly how Michigan came to enforce the ID requirement in these situations is something of a twisted road.

In 1963, the Legislature and governor enacted the Motor Vehicle Code, which set up safety regulations on commercial motor vehicles; the 10,000-pound standard was established. Those vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating greater than that number were subject to state regulation. In 1990, the Legislature and governor instead decided to switch to federal motor carrier standards. Any business with a vehicle or combination of vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 10,000 pounds was subject to those requirements.

Out in the field, the Michigan State Police’s Motor Carrier Division could not enforce the identification requirement on commercial vehicles that operated only within Michigan. The technology and staffing were not available to assemble a registry of vehicles belonging to commercial operations and assign them identification numbers, said Inspector Randy Coplin of the State Police. These trucks were still subject to regulation by the state, but not the requirements that come with obtaining a federal ID number.

A problem emerged. The federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration informed the state that most of its problems with crashes were coming from vehicles associated with businesses only conducting commerce within Michigan.

Meanwhile, the technology developed to enforce the regulation. Principally, the federal government enabled businesses to fill out the form for free online. So, about 2005, Coplin said, the State Police began a two-year educational and public relations effort to inform the business community it would begin enforcing the long-unenforced requirement for the federal ID number.

“The whole reason for doing the USDOT number was we could get a truer picture of where our commercial motor vehicle crashes and injuries were,” Coplin said. “The USDOT number is unique to a carrier. If there’s a crash or inspection, that is the best way to ensure that the correct information is placed on the correct carrier.”

Critics note, however, that there's tracking and there's tracking.

Federal law, for example, allows states to exempt commercial motor vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating of 10,001 pounds to 26,000 pounds from the ID requirement, along with the regulations behind it. But to make that change, the Legislature would have to pass a bill -- and the governor would have to sign it.

The House passed just such a bill (House Bill 5228) in March. It is pending in the Senate.

Charles Owens, director of the National Federation of Independent Business-Michigan, said the identification regulation was well-meaning, to ensure big trucks comply with safety standards, butMichiganhas gone too far.

“They’re chasing down farmers that are hauling cows from one property to another,” he said. “This is what we call mission creep when we get into regulation.”

Smego credited State Police for working with the agriculture community, calling it “a great partner.” But the enforcement of the requirement can mean inspections lasting four hours -- and in the middle of planting and harvesting season, when timing is critical.

“It’s been complicated, at best,” he said.

The State Police is neutral on the exemption bill in its current form, Coplin said. The measure would still require the drivers of these vehicles to undergo a medical exam to check their eyesight, mobility and blood pressure, and equipment standards would remain for the vehicle. But the requirement for a federal identification number, annual inspection and keeping a logbook to track drivers’ hours of service would end.

Even though the department does not oppose the bill, the legislation will make motor carrier officers’ jobs more challenging, Coplin said.

Officers would now have to manually type into a registry the identifying information available in the vehicle, like the name of the business, the number on the vehicle’s registration certificate and anything gleaned from interviewing the driver.

“It’s going to be harder to sort out the violations without the USDOT number,” he said. “Not impossible. More difficult.”

Zach Gorchow is editor of the Gongwer News Service in Lansing. Gorchow previously worked as a reporter for Gongwer and at the Detroit Free Press before becoming the news service's editor. He is a graduate of Michigan State University.

Editor's note: This story was produced in a collaboration between Bridge Magazine and the Gongwer News Service.

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Tue, 04/17/2012 - 1:00pm
Big trucks are a menace. Check out the accident statistics at this website: http://www.truckaccidents.org/statistics/. If this regulation will help make roads safer than I'm for it. I've been driving for more than 25 years and truck driving, in my opinion, has changed measurably. In earlier years, trucks did not cut-off cars that wanted to pass or held up long lines of cars as they churned up hill or crawled pass another truck or car. It seems truck driver etiquette is dying. This doesn't mean that most other drivers deserve applause for their thoughtfulness, but truck drivers need to take the higher ground of prevention.
rex waltersdorf
Tue, 04/17/2012 - 3:52pm
in regards to this article, I work at the secondary complex, and there is always a Motor Carrier Officer sitting and waiting for people to come in and register their vehicles out here. tickets, scales and log books are always being given out...