Driver Training Proposal Generates More Questions

The U.S. Department of Transportation has proposed minimum training standards for entry-level commercial truck drivers, but the rulemaking opens more questions than it answers. The proposed rule has taken a tortured path. Back in 1991, Congress mandated that DOT complete a rulemaking on entry-level driver training standards, but the agency failed to act for over a decade. In response to a court suit filed by several public interest groups, DOT settled the litigation by agreeing to issue a driver training rule.

But in 2004, DOT implemented a training rule that focused on areas unrelated to the hands-on operation of a commercial motor vehicle (CMV), relying instead on the Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) knowledge and skills tests to encourage training in the operation of CMVs. Upon a further challenge by several highway safety advocacy groups, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that DOT had failed to consider important aspects of an adequate entry-level training program and remanded the rule to the Agency for further consideration. In essence, the court said that the FMCSA’s 2004 “driver training rule” did not include any instruction on how to drive a commercial motor vehicle. This new proposed rule attempts to address the issues raised by the court.

The current proposal, published in December 2007, would not apply to drivers who currently possess a Commercial Driver’s License or those who obtain a CDL before a date three years after a final rule goes into effect. Following that date, persons applying for a new or upgraded CDL would be required to successfully complete specified minimum classroom and behind-the-wheel training from an accredited institution or program. The state driver-licensing agency would only issue a CDL if the applicant presented a valid Driver Training Certificate obtained from an accredited institution or program.

The proposed rule would require a minimum of 76 hours of classroom training and at least 44 hours of behind-the-wheel training before drivers could be tested for a Class A CDL. For a Class B or C CDL, applicants would need to complete 58 hours of classroom training and 32 hours behind-the-wheel. The curriculum for training is also set out in the proposal.

Yet it doesn’t take 90 hours, including four eight-hour days behind the wheel, to learn to drive an unarticulated delivery truck. (You don’t need to know how to build a truck by hand in order to be a safe driver.) Moreover, all of GAWDA members’ truck drivers are already subject to hazmat employee training as required by the Pipelines and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, and the proposed rule does not specify how the FMCSA training requirements would mesh with the existing PHMSA requirements, or whether compliance with the PHMSA rules would suffice for some or all of the FMCSA training as well.

Additionally, the proposed rule would allow any entity to provide the training necessary to meet the driver standards, but all training “programs” must be accredited by a body recognized by the U.S. Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. This poses significant problems for companies that already conduct driver training for their own driver trainees—these companies must now go back and obtain certification of their programs by some accreditation entity that knows little or nothing about the needs of persons handling, storing or transporting compressed gases or other goods in commerce.

There is already a significant shortage of qualified truck drivers in the United States. Although GAWDA supports regulatory efforts designed to improve safety performance in the industry, this proposal could exacerbate the current driver shortage without enhancing the safety of new drivers behind the wheel.

As far back as the 1980s, the Department of Transportation studied commercial driver training programs and developed a “model curriculum” for driver training programs. But the agency stopped short of imposing that model curriculum on companies because DOT was never able to “validate” that compliance with the model curriculum would make the trainee a safer commercial motor vehicle driver.

Now under pressure from Congress and the courts, and having tried and failed once to issue a rule that didn’t mandate a particular driver training curriculum, the DOT is taking the opposite approach, and proposing that all companies comply with one-size-fits-all driver training requirements, whether the company transports gas cylinders, potato chips, passengers or mobile homes. DOT has periodically stated that all of its safety regulations must be based on “sound science,” but this is one instance where political expediency has trumped scientific inquiry.

Gases and Welding Distributors Association
Meet the Author
GAWDA Government Affairs and Human Resources Legal Consultant Richard P. Schweitzer, Esq., is president of Richard P. Schweitzer, PLLC, in Washington, D.C. Members can reach him at 202-223-3040 and at rpschweitzer@rpslegal.com.