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.
The proposal notes that some drivers are trained by big motor carriers who want to hire them. Other new entrants voluntarily attend and pay for one of 200 truck-driving schools and programs across the country.
Safety groups and Congress have pushed the Transportation Department since a 1991 law required the agency to determine the adequacy of driver training. Besides the fatalities, truck crashes caused 106,000 injuries in 2006, according to government figures. Industry experts said the highest risk of an accident is in the first two years of driving.
"They get cousin Jake to show them how to operate the rig," said Gerald Donaldson, senior research director for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a nonprofit safety group in Washington whose suit over the 2004 rule led to the revision. "Then the terrifying thought is they learn by doing."
Federal regulators have known since 1995, when they published a three-volume "Adequacy Report," that some drivers weren't properly trained and that only 9 percent of motor carriers offered sufficient training. The study also said driving time on streets and highways was essential to training.
The safety group and the owner-operators sued after the 2004 rule ignored the training issue and focused on driver wellness and qualifications, legal limits on drive time and whistle-blower protections.
"Our eyeballs fell out and bounced off the floor," Donaldson recalled.
In 2005, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia told the agency to write another rule.
"The final rule inexplicably ignores the Adequacy Report and the regulatory prescriptions contained in that report," the opinion said. "The agency has adopted a rule with little apparent connection to the inadequacies it purports to address."
Donaldson sees shortcomings in the new rule, too. It wouldn't cover new drivers until three years after its effective date. It pertains only to interstate drivers, and less training is required for drivers of other trucks and interstate buses.
"We are trying to respond to the court's concerns and provide highway safety," said Hill, of the Motor Carrier Safety Administration. "This is a big departure from the previous rule."
Cindy Skrzycki is a regulatory columnist for Bloomberg News. She can be reached email@example.com.