I often weave my personal experiences into the regulatory and truck safety issues I cover in this column. In September 2003, for example, I noted that my daughter had left home for her second year of college, I had crossed the ocean for the first time, and I had also crossed the age-55 threshold. The latter event meant that I had to renew my CDL.
I remember writing about how amazed I was that the renewal process took only 30 minutes. I vividly recall asking the local DMV administrator: “Ok, now that I've passed the written test, what about the background check?” Her reply was that TSA had put those procedures on hold because too many details had yet to be worked out.
Almost two years later, I find an eerie similarity to those events. My daughter is headed back to college for a summer internship, I'm writing this on a plane as I cross the Atlantic Ocean after a business trip, and background checks for CDLs with hazmat endorsements are still in the news. May 31 was the deadline for implementing TSA's Hazmat Threat Assessment Program (HTAP) for all hazmat-endorsed CDL renewals. (The requirement for new hazmat CDLs went into effect January 31.)
That two-part background check includes a name-based search of national crime/terrorist databases to ensure that the applicant has not been convicted of or is not wanted/under indictment for crimes such as extortion, rape, arson or bribery. The second element involves checking fingerprints against FBI criminal, intelligence and immigration records.
Federal officials estimate that about 2.7 million of the 11-million CDL holders currently carry hazmat endorsements. According to ATA, that's about 45,000 renewals — and background checks — a month. And that doesn't include the background checks of new applicants. That staggering number is the reason this issue is currently front and center on Capitol Hill.
On May 11, the House of Representatives' Transportation and Infrastructure's Subcommittee on Highways, Transit and Pipelines held a hearing to evaluate the status and rollout readiness of TSA's background check process. Witnesses included government and industry officials. By all accounts, it was a real donnybrook. Representatives of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, for example, accused TSA of not understanding the “licensing environment.” Industry officials accused TSA of making “bad decisions” in implementing congressional requirements.
But the following key points were made:
HTAP is not ready for prime time because fingerprint collection sites are inadequate and/or inconvenient and operating hours are limited.
Many states that opted to use their own collection procedures rather than those of the preferred TSA vendor were not expected to be fully operational by the May 31 deadline.
The system for forwarding, managing and verifying fingerprint information is fraught with inconsistencies and errors.
The turnaround time for background-check results ranges from two weeks to 120 days.
I urge you to consider the following issues as you manage your drivers' hazmat CDL renewals. First, remind them early and often about the renewal requirements. States are only required to notify drivers 60 days in advance of the expiration date. But given the turnaround times and inadequate/inconvenient fingerprint collection sites, I think a 120-day lead-time is more appropriate. It's also important to contact your state-licensing agency to find out whether it is willing or able to give extensions for CDL renewal dates.
Second, be aware that states are currently not required to notify employers when a driver fails a background check. Stay tuned to industry efforts to change that. Finally, have a plan for the inevitable. What are you going to do when drivers don't get their licenses renewed before the expiration date?
Planning for all eventualities is critical to your survival, especially with this boondoggle.
Jim York is the manager of Zurich Service Corp.'s Risk Engineering Transportation Team, based in Schaumburg, IL.