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A commercial driver's license to operate a tractor?

The prospect of state and federal regulatory agencies requiring tractor operators to hold a commercial driver's license is being kicked around, possibly as a scare tactic by membership organizations to show the overreach of government, and possibly by regulatory agencies as they attempt to "equalize" qualifications. While the CDL may be a distraction, there is greater likelihood for agricultural operators that farm trucks will be reclassified as "commercial haulers" with higher fees for registration.

It is time for farmers to take a hard look at the exemptions they've had from regulations that are imposed on other commercial enterprises. With a changing economic landscape, the state and federal agencies that regulate transportation could move to more "licensing and fees" to support themselves and require upgrading of operator qualifications and equipment.

The Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 established the Commercial Driver's License as a means to regulate truck drivers nationwide. At the time, it was focused on reducing the number of accidents on highways by getting unqualified drivers out of the cabs. The CDL progressively moved to eliminate multiple state licenses and to lower the limit for blood alcohol below the standard for passenger car operators. The license requires the driver to have specialized knowledge and proficiency before he or she can qualify to make their livelihood from transporting goods on roads and highways. The employer also faces regulations that require a lot of tracking and paperwork.

Farmers are becoming more "alone" in their exemptions from regulations. As more sectors of the transportation industry are required to comply with regulations, farmers are less likely to remain exempt because they are seen as holding an economic advantage over the commercial haulers. In grain producing areas, literally all farms of any size have a semi-trailer grain truck. They use it to haul to the local elevator or farther away (even across state lines) if the price is higher. They haul for several months each year and get in the dump line with commercial operators yet they don't pay the same registration for their vehicles. That creates animosity and an opening for regulatory agencies to argue that one standard should be imposed on all vehicles and all drivers.

Keep an eye on the state of Illinois to see if a "domino effect" is about to happen. Illinois is in dire economic straits and the state department of transportation is targeting farmer-owned trucks to gain more revenue. The argument is that one standard should exist for all uses of a vehicle and equivalent fees should be paid. At this time, commercial trucks pay approximately 10 times the annual fee that farmers pay ($3,000 versus $300). Farmers are protesting loudly, saying that they are "different" and only operate a few months per year. The Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, is a former Republican congressman from Illinois and he is neither willing nor able to keep the state from "equalizing" the fees for trucks that drive on its roads.

Like it or not, a farm is not a sacred institution any longer. The size and scope of commercial agricultural operations exceeds that of many businesses in their community. Millions of dollars of capital are in play and the enterprises are very sophisticated. It is hard to draw a line that says: "You are commercial but I am family."

Regarding a CDL, there is an effort to define "an instrument of husbandry" to show that a vehicle is used strictly for agricultural purposes. Where is the line that crosses over from family farm to commercial operator? One extreme is an underage tractor driver on a county road. Should there be a minimum license or restriction? On the other is an operator hauling liquid manure down state roads and applying it to fields the enterprise doesn't own with a specially built tractor and a tank that weighs as much as a semi-trailer truck. Is that a "farm" vehicle? If not, should it be registered as a commercial vehicle and should the driver be required to hold a CDL? What about driving a combine or tractor with oversized planter down a state road where the likelihood of collision with automobile or truck traffic is high? Should the farm be required to have a permit to do so and should the operator be licensed accordingly? We are rapidly approaching a time when a Slow Moving Vehicle sign is no longer a shield against prosecution or regulation.

I was amused at a meeting of agrichemical dealers, from a multi-state area, where one state association executive told a story of a farmer who hauled pesticides from town to farm in an unlicensed truck. His theory was that, if he had no registration, he was not liable for a spill or other accident.

Is there any influence group out there that can keep the status quo in place? Farm organizations will try but may be self-serving by fanning the flames to gain membership over a hot issue. Members of Congress will write letters and make bold statements but they will spend the rest of this term looking for revenue.

The challenge of remaining "unregulated" is getting harder because the biggest problem is not who's for you but who's against you. When other sectors don't enjoy the same regulatory exemptions it causes divisiveness that will eventually be squared by government agencies. In the short term, farmers may keep their classification on vehicles, but the fees and requirements will be equal to those for commercial operators.

Look at it this way: Remaining exempt from a CDL for 25 years is a remarkable feat. Surely there has been some planning and awareness by farm operators for phasing in operator licenses and awareness that higher fees were coming for vehicles equivalent to those in commercial fleets. The risk of a lawsuit seems to be the greatest threat. The legal shield may be compliance with regulation rather than exemption from it.

Editor's note: Ken Root has been an agricultural reporter for 37 years. Root now does daily radio and television programming and is a columnist. He can be reached at kenroot@gmail.com.

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