The advisory committee formed to develop basic training standards for truck drivers has released its “consensus recommendation,” including formal statements from two trucking associations who cast the only dissenting votes for the behind-the-wheel (BTW) instruction portion of the proposal. Other trucking and training representatives on the panel, however, say those objections are “baffling” and misleading.
At issue is the requirement for 30 hours of BTW instruction set by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Entry-Level Driver Training Advisory Committee (ELDTAC), a group of stakeholders representing trucking, drivers, regulatory enforcement, and highway safety advocates, among others.
The panel voted 24-2 in favor of the requirement, a majority sufficient to meet to the consensus threshold for the negotiated rulemaking.
But according to American Trucking Assns. (ATA), that hours requirement is unsupported by science and goes against federal policy.
ATA, which otherwise supports the consensus recommendation, explained in its letter to ELDTAC Facilitator Richard Parker that a 2008 American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) study found that “no relationship is evident between total training program contact hours and driver safety events when other factors such as age and length of employment are held constant.”
Additionally, studies of teen driver instruction come to the same conclusion, ATA argued.
ATA also cited a pair of White House directives that call for regulations to be focused on performance objectives rather than specifying “the means to those ends.”
“Ultimately, neither the underlying science nor the framework for adopting regulations supports an hours-based requirement,” writes ATA Vice President Boyd Stephenson in explaining the dissenting vote. “In the absence of empirical support for regulations that specify behavior or manner of compliance, the Administration’s guidance is clear: performance standards must be adopted.”
The National Association of Small Trucking Cos. (NASTC) also dissented, referring to the 30-hour BTW requirement as “the camel’s nose under the tent” and “political sleight of hand,” with increases in the minimum likely to follow.
“The advocates for hours-based standards refused to hold off initiating efforts to increase the number of hours until actual data from real-world experience under the 30 hours could be gathered and analyzed,” NASTC writes. “This display of bargaining in less than good faith was telling and indicated to NASTC that 30 hours is only the beginning.”
Others with representation on the committee, however, say that the outcome of the negotiation process is a good rule that will ensure CDL holders are trained to thorough standards and safe—and that the hours requirement is just to keep the trainers honest.
Performance is heart of recommendation
The Commercial Vehicle Training Assn. has advocated for a performance-based CDL training programming since 2007, the last time FMCSA tackled an issue that has been on the rulemaking agenda for 25 years. And the latest recommendation is very much in line with what the association of schools has had in mind, CVTA President Don Lefeve told Fleet Owner.
“Everyone knows that hours are included in this, but it’s not what I would define as an ‘hours-based’ program,” Lefeve said. “It’s incorrect to characterize it like that.”
CVTA, which had a representative on the committee, contends that the detailed skills requirements are the heart of the program, and that the training hours are simply “an accountability measure.” And, under the proposal, the schools or trainers must certify graduates based on performance, not simply on whether or not the student put in the minimum time.
Indeed, CVTA members already train in excess of 30 hours BTW, and will work with students until they’re ready to pass the CDL exam. And the “vast majority” of students are not going to be competent after the 30-hour minimum, Lefeve added. But even if a student could master the basic truck driving skills in 20 hours, another 10 hours on the road “doesn’t really hurt the common good, the motoring public.”
“The people that are going to run into problems are CDL mills,” he said. “If you look at what quality programs are doing right now, any of them should be able to easily meet this.”
And that’s why Scott Grenerth, Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn. regulatory director and a committee member, calls the ATA objection “baffling.”
Grenerth points to the Class A CDL core curriculum—10 pages in the ELDTAC document—and questions how anyone could see the recommendation as an hours-based requirement.
“This is way more than merely teaching to the test—more than just bare bones, being able to not hit anything when you get in the truck and drive down the road for your CDL exam,” Grenerth said. “This clearly is going to require way more, and in reality that’s going to require more than 30 hours.”
And while he acknowledges the risk of “mission creep” by FMCSA, a BTW hours standard is necessary to track which training programs work—something that would be difficult to do without the recommendation’s structure and accountability. And 30 hours is a “reasonable, minimal threshold” and “a good starting point.”
“FMCSA will be watching the performance of these trainers,” Grenerth said. “That’s where the 30 hours comes in. Now they’ve got something with some teeth to go after. If schools that spend 50 hours are doing 75% percent better in terms of safety performance, then clearly there needs to be an adjustment made.”
OOIDA has long warned of training schools whose business is cashing tuition checks rather than producing qualified truck drivers.
“[The recommendation] is not a silver bullet that’s going to close them down on the first day, but it will make it much harder for them to operate,” Grenerth said.