The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is continuing its efforts to clean up the commercial driver's license (CDL) system, making it more difficult for bad drivers to stay on the road.
Although the agency's efforts have been ongoing, the latest round comes at a time when the trucking industry is reeling from large-scale CDL scandals in Illinois and Florida, where state-sanctioned driving schools and others bribed state officials to grant licenses to unfit drivers. The scandal in Illinois has been so high profile that Governor George Ryan has decided not to run for reelection. The CDL imbroglio, now under federal investigation, is cited as a major reason.
Only a few months after issuing proposals that include revoking the CDL of a driver convicted of operating a passenger car under the influence of drugs or alcohol, FMCSA is taking the next step in toughening licensing rules, including closing loopholes.
FMCSA is proposing that three new traffic offenses be added to the list of those that would disqualify drivers. These are driving a commercial vehicle without having a CDL; driving without having a CDL in their possession; and not having met the minimum testing standards for the specific class of vehicle being operated or the type of cargo being hauled.
The proposal also calls for drivers to be disqualified if they are found driving with a suspended license, driving while disqualified or if they cause a traffic fatality.
For the first time, FMCSA would require states to send traffic violation data — when it results in a loss of driving privileges — to a driver's home state, where it must be entered into the record. States would also have to keep records of all violations committed by CDL drivers, as well as those illegally operating commercial vehicles, for at least three years.
FMCSA proposes that the record-swapping requirement be phased in. Records are to be sent within 30 days of conviction during the first three years after the regulation is enacted. After six years, records must be submitted within 10 days.
REMOVING THE MASK
This proposal also closes a major loophole, known as masking, that makes it possible for drivers to commit violations that, through diversion programs or some other quirk in state law, are not placed on their driving record. FMCSA proposes that before issuing a CDL, a state must check data from any state that previously granted the driver a CDL.
The agency would also like to eliminate the loophole that allows states to issue “hardship” licenses to commercial drivers whose convictions for speeding, reckless driving or other serious violations in their private vehicles would normally bar them from driving commercial vehicles. The Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999 now gives the agency the authority to prohibit this.
FMCSA is going to offer states an incentive for compliance, as well as penalties for noncompliance. States that cannot comply will be eligible for federal grants to get up to speed. States that are still not in compliance after getting this help will not receive future federal/state funding issued through the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP).
More importantly, noncompliant states could have their CDL programs yanked. “FMCSA would also be authorized to decertify a state's ability to issue, transfer, or renew CDLs, although licenses issued by such states before decertification would remain valid until the licenses' expiration dates,” the proposal notes.
Industry officials and others have until October 25, 2001, to voice their concerns about the proposal. Politically, the timing is perfect since pressure for tightening the system is also coming from Congress. With attention focused on NAFTA, the subject of a licensing system that tolerates unsafe drivers is now under scrutiny. “How can we tell the Mexican government that their drivers are not safe compared to our drivers when we have licensing loopholes big enough to drive a truck through?” asks one Capitol Hill staffer.