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According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, most large trucks weigh 20-30 times more than passenger cars, have a higher risk of rolling over and take longer to stop. In 2011, 3,373 people died in crashes involving a large truck, accounting for about 10 percent of all motor vehicle-related fatalities that year.
Considering these facts, why are commercial truck drivers not required to go through formal training before being licensed?
It is an “unexplainable” gap in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s truck driver safety regulations, claims Norita Taylor, spokesperson for the Grain Valley, MO-based Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. FMCSA’s safety regulations include mandates such as medical testing before receiving a license, drug and alcohol screenings, and hours-of-service restrictions to reduce the risk of fatigued driving.
“If we accept the premise that safety is a priority, and that safety is a concern enough to have all these other mandates, then it follows that training should be required,” she said.
Currently, entry-level truck drivers only need to pass a state exam on federal truck regulations and how to conduct a pre-trip inspection before being licensed. Drivers also must complete a driving skills demonstration.
“What other safety-sensitive industry would have ill-defined training standards?” said Don Osterberg, senior vice president of safety and security for Schneider National Inc., a Green Bay, WI-based provider of truckload, logistics and intermodal services. “Would we think about putting commercial pilots into an aircraft and say, ‘We will train you on the job’?”
Recognizing the need for formal training, lawmakers included provisions in MAP-21 – a surface transportation funding bill signed into law in July 2012 – stating that FMCSA must issue minimum training requirements for entry-level truck drivers by October 2013. FMCSA also must determine the specific training needs of commercial motor vehicle operators seeking endorsements to transport passengers or hazardous materials.
Feedback on requirements
To gather feedback from the industry, FMCSA hosted a listening session on March 22 at the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, KY. During the session, FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro said one reason why formal training has not yet been required for entry-level drivers is a lack of certainty on which minimum training requirements work best: A minimum number of training hours in a classroom or behind the wheel, having trainers establish core competencies or performance standards that truck drivers must meet during a driving test, or a combination.
The agency’s most recent attempt to issue requirements was a 2007 notice of proposed rulemaking that would have established a minimum number of training hours for drivers to complete before obtaining a commercial license.
The NPRM mandated 120 hours of formal training for drivers of tractor-trailer trucks, which require a Class A license to operate because of advanced handling characteristics; and 90 hours for all other trainees seeking a Class B or C license, which are given for lower-weight vehicles or based on type of cargo. For each, slightly more than one-third of training would be required to take place behind the wheel and the remainder in a classroom.
FMCSA stopped pursuing the NPRM after it received mixed feedback from more than 700 commenters. Most were generally supportive of establishing training requirements but questioned whether a minimum amount of time in training was sufficient and called for performance standards to be implemented by trainers. Some commenters also noted the lack of research connecting the amount of time entry-level truck drivers train with improvements in safety records.
In May 2008, however, OOIDA criticized a performance standards-only approach advocated by many commenters. Without setting a minimum number of hours, trainers could choose to provide very little hands-on instruction and graduate drivers without sufficient experience behind the wheel, OOIDA argued.
Osterberg does not believe requiring a minimum amount of training time will be enough: “People have different cognitive abilities, and the notion that time alone is a proxy of the quality of training and skill transfer is rather shortsighted,” he said.
However, he acknowledged that it would be difficult for FMCSA to regulate a rule only requiring drivers to meet certain standards. For instance, different instructors could have multiple ways of applying the standards and may not be consistent day-to-day in how they assign competency scores, he said.
Certification process for trainers
MAP-21 also requires FMCSA to research the costs and benefits of implementing a federal certification process for training providers.
This could help address the issue of “commercial driver’s license mills” – schools that tend to be more concerned with profit than safety, said David Heller, director of the Professional Truck Driver Institute, an Alexandria, VA-based nonprofit organization that advocates truck driver training standards. Such schools provide drivers with only the minimum skills and training needed to pass a state exam, he said.
FMCSA’s upcoming regulations for training certification also may address carrier-provided training. Taylor said OOIDA has heard anecdotally from entry-level truck drivers who were trained at their carrier by drivers who had only recently completed training.
At the March 22 listening session, Lee Strebel, a truck driver and driver trainer, commented that he has seen carriers select drivers with only six months of experience to provide training for entry-level drivers. This is inadequate, he said, especially considering that six months is not long enough to have driven in all weather conditions.
During the listening session, several training providers stated that a certification system would undermine the truck industry by imposing new costs on providers and reducing class sizes, thus limiting interested students who want to become a truck driver.
In response, other attendees stated that protecting the safety of truck drivers should be the most important consideration in FMCSA’s regulations, not profit losses for training providers.