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Highways across Michigan and the U.S. have become increasingly dangerous for motorists. And that will only get worse if Congress approves a transportation spending bill that effectively keeps the suspension of rules in place that allow truck drivers to work longer hours, that permits larger double-trailers and that prevents the U.S. Department of Transportation from raising minimum insurance standards that have been frozen in place for the last three decades.

The fate of those provisions, tucked inside a $55 billion federal transportation spending bill, is now being considered on Capitol Hill. Despite the recent settlement related to a high-profile crash last year involving a Walmart driver hitting a vehicle carrying comedian Tracy Morgan that killed another man, lawmakers are still brushing aside safety concerns.

More than 4,000 lives are claimed each year on our highways in accidents involving tractor trailers, many of which don’t get national headlines. Long hours on the road are often the cause of them because drivers feel pressured by their employers to push their limits. In fact, it was long hours on the job that led to the crash that injured Morgan and killed fellow comedian James McNair.

Those forces will only increase, however, if “hours of service” rules, loosened last year by Congress, are allowed to continue. By reducing the hours drivers are forced to rest each week, a maximum 70-hour workweek is extended to 82 hours. If this legislation becomes law, that scenario is very likely to continue. Drivers are less likely to be alert behind the wheel, which leads to more crashes.

That makes sense to most anyone. But a lesser-known issue is one involving longer tractor trailers. The transportation appropriations bill would allow trucks to pull 33-foot trailers. As it stands, states are allowed to set the standard, and many limit their length to the federal minimum of two 28-foot trailers.

Michigan and 38 other states could be forced to allow these oversized rigs on their roadways if Congress approves the legislation. And there are plenty of reasons why these states now don’t. For one, the longer double trailers would add an additional 10 feet to the length of existing double trailers, making it harder to pass these trucks and harder for truck drivers to see who’s beside them. Longer trucks also need greater stopping distances, and over-congested highways leave little room for driver reaction times when it comes to changing lanes and reduced speeds. Even the Department of Transportation (DOT) is recommending lawmakers make no changes to truck size and weight rules.

Safety is also an issue when it comes to truck insurance. The DOT is ready to propose rules on this issue, so why is Congress looking to quash this matter before the agency can act? The desires of the trucking industry, that’s why. Even though medical costs and property damages have grown significantly since the current requirements were put in place, these big businesses are turning a blind eye to the problem.

More than 600,000 Teamsters turn a key to a truck for a living. The nation’s roadways are their office. Naturally, highway safety is important to our union. But anyone except special interests will tell you that these changes being considered by Congress are no way to improve the safety of Michiganians.

James P. Hoffa is president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Labor Voices

Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Steven Cook.

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