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U.S. Rep. Steve Daines, R-Mont., is under fire for blocking efforts to increase liability insurance requirements on freight trucks and buses like the one that killed two passengers outside Missoula in 2012.

By the narrowest of votes, Daines stopped the House from increasing, for the first time in 29 years, the minimum amount of liability motor carriers must carry. Daines’ amendment preventing the increase — which was part of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development appropriations bill — passed 214 to 212.

The congressman argued that a higher insurance requirement wouldn’t improve public safety and would prevent small trucking and bus companies from investing in safety steps like new tires and repairs. The increase in liability insurance requirements was sought by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and House Democrats.

“The small businesses that make up the majority of the truck and bus industries not only provide jobs for thousands of Americans, they play an important role in moving goods and people and supporting our economy,” Daines said in a prepared statement. “It flies in the face of common sense to put people’s livelihoods at risk without any evidence that it would improve the safety of our roads or better meet the needs of catastrophic accident victims.”

Critics of the amendment said that after 29 years, minimum levels of liability insurance no longer cover the medical and property costs of severe semi wrecks and commercial bus crashes.

Since 1985, freight trucks have been required to have at least $750,000 in liability coverage. Buses with 16 or more passengers have been required to carry $5 million.

But $5 million wasn’t nearly enough when Billings-based Rimrock Stages wrecked a bus outside Missoula, killing two people and injuring 33 others, including the driver, on Jan. 8, 2012. The federal government shut down the bus service for safety violations, including deferred maintenance. The insurance money was handed over to courts to be paid out until it was gone, said attorney Christopher Edwards. The money didn’t cover the damages.

“Rimrock had $5 million coverage. That was the minimum,” Edwards said. “In this case, you had two people die and you had over 30 people injured. Severe injuries. It is insane that you allow” buses “to run around with that kind of coverage.”

Edwards’ client, Claude Oulman, of Butte, accused Rimrock and Greyhound Lines Inc. of negligence in a lawsuit filed in February 2012. Oulman was headed to Portland when the westbound bus traveling 65 to 70 mph hit black ice and rolled on U.S. Interstate 90. The lawsuit, still unresolved, contends the Rimrock bus was in a hurry to stay on schedule and not driving at a safe speed.

After two-and-a-half years, Oulman still isn’t right physically, Edwards said.

“He’s got issues remaining with severe injuries. He was hospitalized for over a month,” after the crash, Edwards said. “He was headed to Portland, where he bought a new pickup, and only needed a one-way ride.”

In Montana, survivors of someone killed in an accident can recover future lost earnings, Edwards said. Those kind of damages quickly chew away what’s available for victims who lived but who face huge medical bills.

But no amount of insurance assures that accident victims will be fully taken care of, Daines’ staff told The Gazette. And catastrophic crashes are extremely rare.

Also, the call for more liability insurance originated with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, not Congress, and that’s wrong, according to Daines’ staff.

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The FMCSA began making its argument months ago for raising the minimum liability insurance requirements. In doing so, it came to many of the same conclusions cited by Daines: that death and severe injury from catastrophic bus and semi truck crashes are relatively rare. About 3,300 of 330,000 total semitrailer and bus crashes annually result in death or severe injury.

But federal officials also say costs of severe and critical injury can easily exceed $1 million and the value assigned to the life of a dead victim can exceed $6.2 million.

Increased medical costs can no longer be covered by liability insurance minimums set in 1985, according to FMCSA.

Adjusted for inflation, a 1985 liability policy for a general freight truck with $750,000 in coverage would have to increase to $1.6 million to provide the same coverage in 1985.

A large bus with $5 million coverage in 1985 would have to have $10.8 million.

Both the trucking industry lobby and the bus lobby, which endorsed the Daines amendment, argued that the higher insurance costs would force from the road experienced trucking and bus companies that have traveled millions of miles with few wrecks.

Political action commitees representing trucking interests have contributed $3,000 to the congressman’s campaign.

The AFL-CIO, representing bus drivers, said the liability insurance requirements had languished for decades and needed to be improved.

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Agriculture and Politics Reporter

Politics and agriculture reporter for The Billings Gazette.