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Transport safety rules sidelined under Trump

President Donald Trump sits behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler truck while meeting on the South Lawn of the White House last March with truckers and CEOs regarding health care policy. As part of his quest to roll back governmental regulations, President Donald Trump is putting the brakes on various safety rules meant to curtail dangers from speeding tractor-trailers and sleepy railroad engineers. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

President Donald Trump sits behind the wheel of an 18-wheeler while meeting on the South Lawn of the White House last March with truckers and CEOs regarding health care policy. As part of his quest to roll back governmental regulations, Trump is putting the brakes on various safety rules meant to curtail dangers from speeding tractor-trailers and sleepy railroad engineers. (AP File Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — On a clear, dry June evening in 2015, cars and trucks rolled slowly amid a herky-jerky backup ahead of a construction zone on Interstate 75 in Chattanooga, Tenn. Barreling toward them: an 18-ton tractor-trailer going about 80 mph.

Despite various signs warning of slow traffic, the driver, with little or no braking, bashed into eight vehicles before coming to a stop about 1½ football fields away. Six people died in the mangled wreck and four more were hurt. The driver was convicted last month of vehicular homicide and other crimes.

In response to this and similar crashes, the government proposed in 2016 requiring that new heavy trucks be required to have possibly life-saving software that would electronically limit their speeds. But now, like many other safety rules that were in the works before President Donald Trump took office, the proposal has been delayed indefinitely by the Transportation Department as part of a sweeping retreat from regulations that the president contends would slow the economy.

An Associated Press review of the department’s rule-making activities in Trump’s first year in office found that at least a dozen safety rules once under development or already adopted have since been repealed, withdrawn, delayed or are no longer a priority. In most of these cases, the rules are being opposed by powerful industries. And the political appointees running the agencies that write the rules often come from the industries they regulate.

Meanwhile, there have been no significant new safety rules adopted over the same period.

The sidelined rules would have, among other things, required that states conduct annual inspections of commercial-bus operators, that railroads operate trains with at least two crew members and that automakers equip future cars and light trucks with vehicle-to-vehicle communication technology to prevent collisions. Many of the rules were prompted by disasters.

“These rules have been written in blood,” said John Risch, national legislative director for the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers. “But we’re in a new era now of little-to-no new regulations no matter how beneficial they might be. The focus is what can we repeal and rescind.”

Trump has made reducing regulations a priority, seeing many existing rules as unnecessary burdens on industry. Last month he tweeted that his administration “has terminated more UNNECESSARY Regulations, in just 12 months, than any other Administration has terminated during their full term in office…”

“The good news is,” he wrote, “THERE IS MUCH MORE TO COME!”

The Transportation Department has declined repeated AP requests since November for an on-the-record interview with Secretary Elaine Chao, Deputy Secretary Jeffrey Rosen or another official to discuss safety regulations. Instead, the department provided a brief statement from James Owens, DOT deputy general counsel, saying that new administrations typically take a “fresh look” at regulations, including those that are the most costly.

Some of the transportation rules that have been rolled back or delayed by the Trump administration. (Graphic courtesy of the Associated Press.)

The department’s position has been that it can reduce regulation without undermining safety. And DOT officials have questioned whether some safety regulations actually improve safety.

“We will not finalize a rule simply because it has advanced through preliminary steps,” the statement said. “Even if a rule is ‘one step away,’ if that rule is not justifiable because it harms safety and imposes unnecessarily high economic costs, for example, that rule will not advance.”

But the rule requiring new trucks to have speed-limiting software would actually have economic benefits, according to a DOT estimate prepared two years ago. It would save as many as 498 lives a year and produce a net cost savings to society of $475 million to nearly $5 billion annually, depending on the top speed the government picked. That’s nearly half the 1,100 deaths that occur every year in crashes involving heavy trucks on roads with speed limits of 55 mph or higher. The government didn’t propose a top speed but said it had studied setting it at 60, 65 and 68 mph.

Rick Watts of Morristown, Tennessee, who lost his wife, two young step-daughters and mother-in-law in the I-75 crash, said he can’t understand why the proposal has been sidetracked.

“If you’re going 80 and you’re knocked down to 60, that’s going to lower the impact,” he said. “It just stuns me that you can give these people proof and they say, ‘We’ll look into that.’ It just baffles me that they’re killing so many people every year.”

The American Trucking Associations, an industry trade group, has claimed credit for stalling the rule. After initially supporting it, the group now says it would establish dangerous speed differentials between cars and trucks. A news release from the associations said its success in stalling the rule is a triumph for the industry.

The trucking industry has developed a strong relationship with Trump. Trucking officials met with Chao within hours after she had taken office, according to Chris Spear, president of the trade group. Trump welcomed trucking executives to the White House by climbing behind the wheel of a Mack truck parked on the South Lawn in March.

“Your story is now being told to the highest levels of government,” Spear told his organization’s members in October.

DOT’s position on the speed-limiting software is that it isn’t dead but that the department has scarce resources and higher priorities. No action is expected before the end of the federal fiscal year on Sept. 30 at the earliest.

Some rules that were in the works have been abandoned entirely. After four people died when a commuter train in New York derailed while speeding around a curve in 2013, investigators found the engineer had fallen asleep. He had undiagnosed sleep apnea, a disorder that causes pauses in breathing and prevents restful sleep, and had made no effort to stop the train.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the crash in part on federal regulators for not requiring medical screening of engineers for sleep disorders. Yet last summer, DOT withdrew a rule the government was in the early stages of writing to require screening for engineers and truck and bus drivers.

The government said regulations aimed at reducing those dangers are either already in place or will be set using rulemaking procedures. But the fatigue rule is years overdue and there is no timetable for completion.

The NTSB has cited sleep apnea as a cause of 13 rail and highway accidents it has investigated, including commuter-train crashes that took place in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 2016, and Brooklyn, New York, in 2017.

“Looking at the multiple piles of broken sheet metal and broken engines and broken people, (DOT’s strategy) doesn’t seem to have been effective,” Dr. Nicholas Webster, an NTSB medical officer, told a recent public meeting on the crashes.

But Dan Bosch, regulatory policy director at the conservative American Action Forum, said the Trump administration is “actually taking a very reasoned and measured approach to how they’re de-regulating.”

Most of the regulations that Trump has taken credit for blocking have stemmed Obama administration proposals that were on track to be adopted but had yet to be put in place, or that weren’t being actively pursued. Bosch deemed them “low-hanging fruit.”

There is a longstanding requirement that major regulations undergo detailed cost-benefit analyses before they can become final. Even rules expected to save lives are weighed against their economic cost. DOT assigns a value of $9.6 million for every life saved in its analyses.

Trump has ordered that two regulations be identified for elimination for every significant new regulation that is issued by the federal government. The White House has acknowledged its calculations of savings from rolled-back regulations cited in public statements include only the cost to industry and others without taking into account benefits the rules produce, including lives saved.

Rosen, the deputy secretary, heads DOT’s task force that evaluates regulations for repeal or modification. In extensive written and public comments before joining the administration, he criticized various regulations as being an indirect tax on industry, but made little mention of their benefits. He has called for curbing federal agencies’ regulatory power by imposing greater analytical requirements and requiring congressional approval before more costly regulations become law. Rosen has also advocated making it easier for industry to challenge regulations in court.

Rosen is an attorney who formerly represented General Motors and an airline-industry trade group. Other DOT political appointees with strong ties to the industries they regulate include:

  • Daniel Elwell, the acting administrator at the Federal Aviation Administration, who is a former airline lobbyist.
  • Cathy Gautreaux, deputy administrator at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the trucking industry, spent 29 years as executive director of the Louisiana Motor Transport Association, a trucking-advocacy group.
  • Ron Batory, the head of the Federal Railroad Administration, was president of Conrail, a service provider for the CSX and Norfolk Southern freight railroads.
  • Howard Elliott, head of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, is a former CSX executive. Among other things, his agency sets safety rules for the rail transport of hazardous goods, including crude oil, ethanol and toxic chemicals.

The industry’s influence on regulations generally “is probably more powerful than it has ever been,” said Neil Eisner, who for more than three decades was the DOT assistant general counsel in charge of overseeing the issuance of new regulations.

DOT says having industry insiders in leadership positions provides deep practical experience in how the transportation industry works.

In October, DOT published a notice inviting the public to recommend which regulations should be repealed, replaced, suspended, or modified. Accompanying the notice was a list of 20 possible candidates, including 13 of the most significant transportation safety rules of the past decade.

Airlines, automakers, railroads, pipeline operators, trucking companies, chemical manufacturers and others responded to the notice with their wish lists. After the comment period closed, DOT said it would repeal a rule from 2015 requiring trains that haul highly flammable crude oil be fitted with advanced braking systems that stop all rail cars simultaneously instead of conventional brakes that stop cars one after the other.

The advanced brakes can reduce the distance and time needed for a train to stop and keep more tank cars on the track in the event of a derailment, DOT said two years ago when it issued the rule.

Freight railroads, which say the rule’s safety benefits are scant and don’t justify the cost, persuaded Congress to require DOT to revisit the rule. The department now says its revised analysis shows the costs would outstrip the benefits.

The advanced brakes perform significantly better than conventional brakes alone, but only slightly better in emergency situations when trains have locomotives in both the front and the back, said Risch, the union official. But trains are not required to have two locomotives and often don’t, he said.

The advanced brakes also have significant safety benefits DOT didn’t consider, Risch said, including the ability to prevent runaway trains like the improperly secured oil train that derailed in Lac Megantic, Canada, in 2013, igniting a fire that killed 47 people. The advanced brakes are already required for trains that haul radioactive waste.

The rule’s repeal, said Risch, a former engineer who has operated trains with advanced brakes, means the government is abandoning “the greatest safety advancement I’ve witnessed in my 41 years in the industry.”

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