Federal Legislation Could Force Farmers To Get a Commercial Driver's License

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(Photo: (cc) by Flickr user cupcakes2)

(Billings, Montanta) A federal proposal to require that farmers have a commercial driver’s license (CDL) before they can drive their tractors or other farm equipment on a public road is causing Montana farmers to say, whoa.

Monday is the deadline for public comments on a proposed rule change that would remove a state’s authority to decide whether they can grant agricultural exemptions. Montana has such an exemption.

Montana’s lone congressman, Denny Rehberg (R-MT) recently wrote to the administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). He told Anne Ferro to drop the proposed federal regulation.

Rehberg says this is not a partisan issue. Rather, he says, it is an urban versus rural difference in philosophy.

“This is one of those cases where it may make sense to require farm equipment in urban areas to have one standard for safety purposes and uniformity,” Rehberg says. “But it doesn’t make sense in places like Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming and South Dakota and such.”

Rehberg says if there is a safety issue in rural states, then each state is in a better position to address the unique needs, concerns and safety values rather than bureaucrats in Washington, DC.

“And that’s why we’re always fighting the urban versus rural element,” Rehberg says. “They just don’t get it in downtown Chicago, downtown LA, downtown Miami. We do have a better understanding.”

The proposed federal rule change requiring a CDL would apply to anyone who drives or hauls agriculture equipment on a public road. This could be a tractor, combine, or even a pickup pulling a livestock trailer as small as 16 feet.

“It’s just a dumb idea,” says Jake Cummins, executive vice president of the Montana Farm Bureau Federation.

He says in addition, the proposal would require farmers and ranchers to get a medical card and fill out a log book as if they’re a long-haul semi driver.

Cummins says he was told by federal officials this change is being considered in the name of safety. He says that argument is a way to quiet down any criticism.

“And certainly the Montana Farm Bureau is all for safety,” he says. “We have a number of safety programs because we believe very strongly in it. But what we believe, as well, is that our folks are very conscious of that obligation because they and their family members are the ones most at risk if they don’t comply with safety regulations that are enforced here in the state of Montana.”

Cummins asks, if there’s such a concern about safety on the highways why aren’t the senior citizens who drive recreational vehicles, some as large as a bus, not required to get a CDL or undergo any additional training?

“I don’t want additional regulation,” he says. “But I find it unfortunate that the focus seems to be on the most productive among us.”

In response to an interview request, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration sent a copy of an op-ed written by Administrator Anne Ferro. Written e-mail questions to the office’s public affairs office were not immediately answered.

Barry “Spook” Stang is the executive vice president of the Motor Carriers of Montana. He’s also a former state legislator.

The organization hasn’t taken a position on the proposed federal rule, but Stang says his personal opinion is that if someone is driving what would be considered a commercial vehicle then they should be subject to the same safety standards as other trucks on the road.

Stang says many farm vehicles aren’t subjected to daily inspections, for example.

“And I have witnessed them going through weigh stations with no brakes and other violations of federal code that the state can’t do anything about,” Stang says. “If you got a truck that’s 26,000 pounds or larger going down the road that hasn’t been properly inspected, doesn’t go through the proper safety techniques, may be driven by somebody who hasn’t been trained to drive that truck, then I think you’re opening the people on Montana’s highways to some very unsafe conditions.”

However, Stang says the proposed federal rule makes no sense when it comes to making farmers and ranchers comply with federal hours of service and hours of driving. He says the agriculture community needs flexibility when it comes to planting or harvesting crops.

Stang also finds other parts of the federal proposal unworkable in rural states like Montana. The 2010 U-S Census pegged Montana’s population at 989,415 people.

Stang says the person driving a tractor down the road, hauling a couple of cows to the 4-H project, or horses to the rodeo shouldn’t be required to have a CDL.

“I think the [FMSCA] is a bit off base when people back East decide they’re going to tell people out here in the big open that we can’t move our tractors up and down the road unless we’re properly trained to drive a truck. It doesn’t make any sense to me,” he says.

The FMCSA has said it wants to make sure federal safety regulations are carried out uniformly across the nation and some states have asked for clarification when it comes to the agriculture industry.

But some members of Congress, like Rep. Denny Rehberg says this is a matter for states.

“One size does not fit all,” he says. “Trust me, the state of Montana and the Montana Department of Transportation get safety every bit as much as somebody sitting in Washington, DC thinking that it’s in the best interest of Montana farmers to fill out a log book to have to move their equipment from one pasture to another.”