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Industry-sought provisions in GOP highway, rail safety bill

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Senate commerce committee has passed a highway and rail bill containing industry-sought provisions that safety advocates say would make Americans less safe. The bill is expected to be wrapped in to a larger, must-pass transportation funding bill that Republican leaders hope to bring to the Senate floor next week.

Here’s a look at the bill’s provisions.

AUTOS/HIGHWAY

–Allows states to lower the qualifying age for interstate truck drivers from 21 to 18. The trucking industry, which sought the provision, says it’s needed to address a shortage of drivers. Labor unions say the shortage could be eliminated by higher pay and better working conditions.

–Requires the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to remove safety ratings of truck and bus companies from its website. The industries and a government watchdog have criticized the agency’s methodology. Safety advocates say the ratings are reasonable given the agency’s limited resources.

–Imposes a new layer of requirements on the motor carrier agency that could hinder its ability to issue future safety regulations. The trucking industry has fiercely opposed some of the agency’s recent actions, including fatigue regulations that limited truck driver hours.

–Increases the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s budget and doubles the limit on fines that can be levied on offending automakers from $35 million to $70 million. But there’s a catch: The budget and fine increases don’t go into effect until after the agency satisfies 17 recommendations made by the Transportation Department’s inspector general and issues regulations identifying all the factors that go into calculating fines. That could effectively delay action on both matters by a year or more.

The Obama administration had asked Congress to double the staff of NHTSA’s Office of Defects Investigation and raise the maximum fine to $300 million. The administration is trying to make the agency more aggressive after investigations showed that for years it failed to detect faulty General Motors ignition switches that have killed at least 124 people and exploding Takata airbags that have killed at least 8 people worldwide and injured more than 100. A record 64 million vehicles were recalled last year.

–Prohibits the traffic safety administration from regulating cellphones and other electronic devices that sync with infotainment systems built into vehicles. The agency is working on guidelines for the devices in an effort to reduce driver distractions. Democrats say the provision is broadly written and might also prevent the agency from setting security standards for vehicle computers to prevent hacking.

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RAILROADS

–Blocks implementation of a new Transportation Department rule requiring trains that haul volatile crude oil to have electronically-controlled brakes that can stop all the cars at once. DOT would have to study the brakes and then initiate a new rulemaking effort using the findings, according to Democratic committee members. The department sought the brakes in response to a series of train derailments in cars loaded with crude oil and ethanol have exploded, causing tremendous fires that burn for days. Freight railroads are opposed to the brakes, which could cost them billions of dollars.

–Gives freight and commuter railroads and Amtrak more time to install a safety system called positive train control. The technology relies on GPS, wireless radio and computers to monitor train position and slow or stop trains in danger of derailing because they’re traveling too fast, are about to collide with another train or are about to enter an area where crews are working on tracks. A 2008 law required railroads to have the systems in place by the end of this year, but many railroads won’t meet the deadline. The bill requires railroads to finish installing the technology by the end of 2018, but leaves open when they have to put the technology — which requires extensive testing before it’s ready — into operation.

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