SALT LAKE CITY — The state and its thousands of long-haul truckers are in a race to meet federal regulations or risk losing millions of dollars of highway funding.
A recent Associated Press report indicated that several states are in danger of losing millions in highway money unless they meet federal standards for big-rig truckers. Under the law, states risk financial penalties for not adopting new safety requirements for commercial truck drivers.
In one of the worst cases, Missouri has been selling equipment and eliminated employees from its highway department to raise enough money to repair roads.
Though Missouri's financial predicament may be extreme, it is far from unique. Approximately one-third of states have indicated they may not meet a Jan. 30 deadline for their drivers' license offices to require interstate truck drivers to provide proof from a medical professional that they are healthy enough to drive, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.
Fortunately, Utah is not among those states at highest risk, according to Tara Zamora, commercial driver license manager of the Utah Driver License Division.
"Utah has done really good and has been able to comply and move forward," she said. The state has achieved nearly every required milestone, she added. "We're in really good shape."
Utah receives an estimated $300 million a year in federal highway funds, Zamora said.
States that fail to comply with the federal mandate could lose 5 percent of their highway funds. If they remain out of compliance for a second year, that penalty doubles, she said.
But noncompliant states could receive a grace period; as long as they submit a plan to obey the mandate, federal officials have indicated they may not start deducting money until 2014.
While some states have been hit especially hard by the economic downturn, Utah has managed to maintain a reasonable level of financial stability, Zamora said.
She said letters would begin to go out to each of the state's 89,000 licensed commercial truckers beginning at the end of the month. The state will then begin the process of certifying every driver in time to meet the federal mandate by 2014, with letters sent to about 10,000 drivers per month.
She said the compliance process is estimated to take about 18 months to complete, leaving about six months to account for "any stragglers or anybody that's fallen behind."
"I am very confident that we are going to meet compliance," she said.
The federal government already requires interstate truck drivers to get medical approval from a doctor. Drivers currently carry their medical certification cards in case they are stopped by a police officer or inspector. Under the federal requirement that kicks in Jan. 30, truck drivers are to begin submitting their medical approval forms to state licensing offices, which are to enter the information in a nationwide database that also tracks things such as invalid licenses and driving violations.
Adding truckers' medical status to the database was supposed to relieve them of carrying medical cards. But because some states have been slow to implement the requirement, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration plans to continue the card-carrying requirement until Jan. 30, 2014.
Cedar City-based trucker Tom Russell said the requirements are necessary to ensure safety on the highways.
"You just have to go in and take a regular physical to make sure you're healthy so you can keep driving with no problems," Russell explained. The exam also includes drug testing, he said, as well as sleep apnea testing.
"How many people fall asleep just driving a car?" he said rhetorically. "We're driving an 80,000-pound truck. The testing definitely keeps (the public) safe and us safe."