Federal highway officials have decided that farmers who operate tractors, combines and semitrailers can keep driving on rural roads without the same kind of regulations that apply to long-haul truckers.
The U.S. Department of Transportation announced last week that it won't require farmers to get commercial driver's licenses after agriculture organizations and lawmakers from farm states flooded Washington with letters opposed to the idea.
It's a victory for farmers who argued that requiring them to carry commercial licenses would cost them time and money.
Agriculture groups were alarmed this spring when the transportation department asked for thoughts on whether commercial truck safety regulations also should apply to farmers who drive their equipment on highways and rural roads within their own state.
Farmers worried they would need to spend money on training and driving tests, keep track of how much time they're behind the wheel and carry medical records. It also would have made it harder to find help, they said, because many teens who work on family farms are too young to get a commercial license.
"You add all that up together, and it's a tremendous drain on resources," said Justin Knopf, 33, a grain farmer near Gypsum, Kan. "There's not a farmer around my community that this would not impact."
Dropping the idea, he said, just made sense.
Family farms would have a tough time surviving if younger generations couldn't drive tractors and trucks, said Bill Myers, 50, who grows corn, soybeans and wheat just outside Toledo.
"My son's been operating equipment since he was 14," Myers said. "He's been hauling grain since he was 17 or 18."
"I'd understand if there are safety concerns, but you don't hear that," he added.
Dozens of members of Congress from farm states in the Midwest and West wrote to the transportation department, asking that the idea be scrapped. Members representing both parties complained that the changes might make sense in heavily populated areas, but not in rural ones where there is little traffic.
"Driving a farm vehicle down a country road in eastern Montana is a whole lot different than driving it through Times Square in New York City," said Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont.
States can give farmers exemptions from buying commercial driver's licenses and many do for those who drive farm vehicles short distances or haul grain within the state. U.S. Transportation Deputy Secretary John Porcari said in a statement last week that that will continue.
"The farm community can be confident that states will continue to follow the regulatory exemptions for farmers that have always worked so well," Porcari said.
No formal proposals or changes were on the table, but the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said it decided to look at the idea because states seemed to be applying the exemptions in different ways. It's not practical to expect farmers to keep their equipment off public roads, it said.
"Most states have already adopted common sense enforcement practices that allow farmers to safely move equipment to and from their fields," an administration statement said.
The cost of a commercial driver's license varies state to state. Ohio, for example, charges a $50 fee for written and road tests and another $42 for the license. In neighboring Pennsylvania, a commercial license costs $10 more per year than a standard license. The fee in Illinois is $60, twice as much as a basic license.
But costs were only one concern.
"A lot of farmers tend to be pretty independent," said Gordon Stoner, 56, who grows wheat, peas and lentils and raises cattle on 11,000 acres around Outlook in eastern Montana. "The idea of government laying on more bureaucracy definitely touched a nerve."
Farmers also didn't think it made sense to group them with truckers because they only use their big rigs to haul grain for a few weeks during harvest season, while commercial drivers are on the road all year.
"They'll travel more miles in a few weeks than these semis on the farms will travel in a lifetime," said Dalton Henry, a lobbyist for the Kansas Association of Wheat Growers. "We need to recognize those differences."
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