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More rules stoke worry

Editorial, Capital Press 6/23/11

There's been a fair amount of chatter in ag circles in recent weeks suggesting the U.S. Department of Transportation was preparing rules that would regulate the operation of farm machinery. The most fearful rumor says the DOT wants to require all farmers to get commercial driver's licenses to legally operate their equipment on their own property.

The good news is that the department, or more properly the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, doesn't appear to have any such plan. The bad news: The administration is seeking to clarify some issues regarding the operation of farm trucks and equipment. How those issues are eventually decided could have an impact on the farm community.

The FMCSA has the responsibility of regulating commercial vehicles. Federal law includes several provisions regarding the operation of farm machinery and farm trucks that exempt farmers from having to obtain commercial driver's licenses, or CDLs. Most states have similar exemptions in their motor vehicle laws.

But the FMCSA said it has recently received "inquiries" over the applicability of the exemptions. So it is seeking comment on three issues as it prepares to draft what it calls a "regulatory guidance," a clarification of exactly what is and isn't covered.

Federal regulation of commercial vehicles comes into play only when those vehicles are involved in interstate commerce. Regulation of an activity solely within the borders of one state would be the purview of that state. While that would seem straightforward, as with all things regulatory, the issue is more complicated. For example, a Washington wheat farmer who delivers his grain to the local co-op in the same county is actually engaged in interstate commerce because the wheat will eventually be shipped to other states or countries.

Farmers may be exempt from getting CDLs, but drivers who carry goods for hire are not. But what if a farmer is a party to a crop-share arrangement, and as part of that deal transports his landlord's share of the crop to market? Is that farmer a "common carrier" as defined by statute, or is the producer entitled to the farm exemption?

And finally, states commonly allow farmers to drive machinery on public roads between farmsteads and fields without a CDL. But the agency says states don't use a common definition of the legal term "implement of husbandry," making it difficult for regulators to figure out what rules apply.

It's unclear from the DOT's filing where the inquiries that prompted this review originated. We have trouble imagining that these issues are weighing heavily on the minds of farmers and ranchers, or even the state officials enforcing regulations within their jurisdictions.

Too often, we think, bureaucrats seek solutions for problems the rest of us were unaware we had.

There's nothing in the DOT's stated desire to clarify the rules that gives us any real cause for alarm. Of course, mischief is always a possibility anytime a federal agency revisits the rulebook. That alone justifies that a skeptical eye be cast upon the process.


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