Trucker Training Proposal Pulls in Late

By Cindy Skrzycki
Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Bush administration wants new truck drivers for the first time to complete a behind-the-wheel and classroom course before they are licensed to roll on interstate highways.

The Dec. 26 proposal says new drivers would need to get training in an accredited program -- 120 hours, including 44 hours behind the wheel -- before they could get commercial licenses. Currently, truckers have to pass an exam given by the states, much like that for an auto license, that doesn't call for formal training.

The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates it will cost $167.8 million a year to train 40,000 new drivers. The measure replaces a 2004 rule that a federal appeals court rejected for not following government findings that training was needed.

"We didn't do the due diligence we should have," John H. Hill, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said in an interview. He said the new proposal, which is out for comment until March 5, "will elevate standards and require truck drivers to be paid more."

The issue is a vital one for the $646 billion trucking industry, which places a premium on keeping trucks rolling in the face of driver shortages and high turnover. Almost 5,000 people were killed in truck accidents in 2006, down slightly from the two previous years.

The American Trucking Associations, the industry's lobbying group in Washington, said it doesn't support this approach to covering new drivers. It opposes the accreditation requirements for schools, certain requirements for trainers and the number of hours that would have to be spent in training.

"This should be about 'Can they drive the truck and pass the test?' " said David Osiecki, the group's vice president of safety, security and operations. "It should be proficiency training with a good quality test."

Some trucking companies said they see the need for the rule. Don Osterberg, vice president of safety and driver training for Schneider National of Green Bay, Wis., said he would like to see the rule expanded to include competency training where students are tested on what they know, not how long they trained. His company trained 9,000 new drivers in six of its own driving academies last year, he said.

Schneider uses simulators, computers, class time and behind-the-wheel practice and follow-up to judge whether a new driver is ready to go or has developed any bad habits.

"We train to standards, not to time," Osterberg said. Some drivers can learn a skill such as trip-planning in four hours and others can't, he said.

"It is just absolutely shocking," Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association in Grain Valley, Mo., said of the current commercial license standards. "There is no training required whatsoever to drive a 40-ton vehicle," the weight of a typical 70-foot tractor-trailer.

Spencer's group, which has about 160,000 experienced drivers, contends that the new rule should be even stronger. "This curriculum would be an absolute minimum," he said, adding that new drivers should be considered trainees for six months.

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