April 9, 2008 9:50 AM, EDT

Opinion: Costly, Ineffective New Federal Training Rules

By Jay Barry Harris
Senior Partner
Fineman, Krekstein & Harris

This Opinion piece appears in the April 7 print edition of Transport Topics. Click here to subscribe today.

Safety is the paramount goal of every motor carrier. From intensive driver training to using the finest technology available, the trucking industry strives to uphold the highest safety standards while ensuring the smooth and steady flow of cargo on our nation’s highways.

The government has its say in highway safety as well, and for as long as truckers have contributed to our national economy, they have done so in accordance with federal and state regulations governing their work. While Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration rules significantly affect how interstate trucking does business, the industry always has been a willing partner implementing stringent safety measures for one simple reason: They save lives.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about new FMCSA training mandates that multiply costs, decrease efficiency, dilute the driver pool and increase legal liability, while offering no concrete evidence they will have any effect on improving highway safety whatsoever.

While the regulators’ hearts are in the right place — enhancing highway safety is a worthy aspiration — their approach is unsound and must be revised to ensure the ongoing viability of trucking in the United States.

Ostensibly proposed to make our highways safer, new FMCSA regulations requiring comprehensive training for new drivers to obtain a commercial driver license are counterproductive. Under these laws, FMCSA will mandate 120 hours of classroom training — including 44 hours behind the wheel — before a new driver can qualify for CDL certification by an accredited school.

At first blush, enhanced training of inexperienced drivers seems a rational means of curbing serious accidents involving newer drivers. However, further examination of the proposed regulations shows a number of significant flaws that will jeopardize their overall effectiveness:

FMCSA estimates it will cost a CDL applicant $3,000 (at an estimated $25 per hour) to complete this training — a price tag that will discourage many qualified drivers from entering the trucking industry.

FMCSA’s proposed regulations assume all new drivers need, and will benefit from, 120 hours of training. This supposition ignores each driver’s individual capabilities, plus the fact that many can master the skills gained in training in much less time and cost than the required 120 hours.

The new rules are based on outdated and incomplete research — an early 1980s Federal Highway Administration study on driver training and a 1995 FMCSA study titled, “The Adequacy Report.” Just how obsolete are these studies? The FHWA study was completed before the advent of the CDL licensing requirements, and “The Adequacy Report” (which recommended that entry-level driver training include behind-the-wheel training without any mention of mandating a certain number of hours) was published before enhanced driver training programs became an industry standard over the past decade.

As a federal agency, FMCSA has jurisdiction over only interstate commerce. Left unchecked by this proposal are intrastate drivers, who are not an insignificant segment of the driving pool. It seems illogical that interstate drivers need the additional training, but intrastate drivers do not.

One cannot ignore the effect these proposed regulations will have on civil litigation generated by accidents involving trucks. The plaintiffs’ bar, or their experts, may try to use the FMCSA regulations to discredit trucking companies’ programs in an attempt to obtain larger verdicts, settlements and even punitive damages.

Last, but most important, FMCSA seeks to impose these mandates while acknowledging that no studies correlate the proposed curriculum with increased highway safety. In fact, the agency invites comment from the trucking industry or others who might have information either supporting or discrediting this supposed link. Regardless of this lack of evidence, FMCSA recommends moving forward with the three-year phase of the new regulations.

Before it does so, the agency would be wise to examine some alternative approaches.

Just one example of how to enhance the proposed regulations would be for the federal government to use its “power of the purse” to encourage states to adopt more stringent testing for new CDL applicants. The states could test those areas FMCSA believes critical to increasing driver skill.

If behind-the-wheel training is a key component, states could require each CDL applicant to furnish a certificate confirming that the applicant has satisfied the required number of hours behind the wheel. Passing the CDL test then would reflect the same level of competency as the proposed certification from an accredited institution. This system also would allow each applicant to decide how to best prepare for the CDL test and eliminate the need to establish government-accredited institutions.

The industry also should be allowed the opportunity to respond to this perceived need for government-accredited institutions in the first place. Many trucking companies have incorporated equivalent driver-training courses in recent years. Those programs are not accounted for in the FMCSA’s proposed regulations.

FMCSA’s effort to increase highway safety is praiseworthy, but to mandate a costly certification process for new drivers without data to support its objective is an unwise and ineffective solution. It’s time to identify solutions that enhance highway safety while making it as easy as possible for truckers to do what they do best — drive the American economy.

The law firm of Fineman, Krekstein & Harris, Philadelphia, has defended numerous trucking companies and insurers throughout the United States.