Least of the least

Sept. 9, 2014
Entry-level standards should focus on the rubber meeting the road

When I learned that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) was thinking about negotiating with stakeholders on minimum entry-level training standards, I was sitting not 20 yards from the course where some of the nation’s safest and most skilled truck drivers were competing for bragging rights over who was the best of the best.

The 426 drivers who competed in the National Truck Driving Championships (NTDC) in Pittsburgh are hyper-safe—more than 650 million accident-free miles among them this year—operators whose skills and awareness are finely honed.  The best of them can reliably back a trailer to within an inch of a stand-in for a dock or maneuver their steer tires to within an inch of an obstacle—a large yellow rubber duck. And that’s after they have completed a written test and a judged pretrip inspection.  Just to get that far, they had to excel in similar competitions at the state level.
Meanwhile, all that the federal government demands of brand new drivers is that they pass the commercial driver’s license test.  Technically, a driver never even has to sit behind the steering wheel of a truck before he takes the CDL test.

In 1991, Congress ordered that a predecessor to FMCSA adopt a final rule on entry-level training standards within two years, and a 1995 agency report concluded that effective entry-level driver training standards required behind-the-wheel instruction.  But it would be another nine years before FMCSA adopted any rules, and it did not require behind-the-wheel training. Instead, it focused on regulatory requirements, wellness and whistleblower protection.  A federal appeals court ruled in 2005 that the rules didn’t go far enough and ordered FMCSA to rewrite them.

The agency’s 2007 proposal drew criticism from fleet owners and others on costs, benefits and other issues.  Again, nothing really happened until Congress reiterated its demand for a rule in 2012.  In September 2013, however, FMCSA withdrew the 2007 proposal altogether and said it would start over.

We are now 21 years past the original deadline.  Late last month, in one of her last acts as administrator, Anne Ferro announced that FMCSA was considering a negotiated rulemaking bringing together the various stakeholders—drivers, fleets, schools, state agencies, labor unions, safety advocates and insurance companies, among others. Regulatory negotiation—or “reg neg” —often is the last resort when an agency knows that any rule it issues is certain to draw one or more lawsuits.

Reg neg probably will not yield the best policy, which is that put forward by the American Trucking Assns. Rather than focus on the number of hours a student trains—time that may or may not be productive—FMCSA should adopt performance-based rules that define what skills drivers must have and set out rigorous testing procedures to ensure drivers have those skills. Different people learn differently.  The goal should be confirming that they learn, not prescribing how they learn.

Consider the drivers competing in NTDC.  Certainly there are best practices many have adopted in their training, but the competition measures results, not the process for achieving them.  Competitors have different ways of remembering what to do when. Success lies in where the rubber meets the road.

Beltway Briefs

  • FMCSA launched previously announced changes to its Security Measurement System website on Aug. 4.
  • EPA has granted the California Air Resources Board’s request for a waiver of preemption so that CARB can enforce its heavy-duty greenhouse gas regulations on certain tractor-trailer combinations. EPA is accepting petitions for review of its decision through Oct. 6.
  • FDA estimates of costs for a proposed rule governing the sanitary transportation of food are likely “grossly underestimated” while the benefits the proposal would yield are questionable, the American Trucking Assns. and the Agricultural and Food Transporters Conference said.
  • OSHA recommended several changes to FMCSA’s proposed rule on driver conversion to give FMCSA more flexibility and authority over the cases it pursues.
About the Author

Avery Vise | Contributing editor

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