Driver training urged at transportation safety hearing

By David Tanner, Land Line associate editor | 1/28/2014

The ranking Democrat on a House subcommittee said Tuesday that training entry-level truck drivers and addressing some of the basic working conditions in trucking would go a long way to improving safety on the highways.

Congressional Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, who represents Washington, D.C., in Congress, told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit that truck safety would benefit the public as well as the truckers themselves.

“These individuals work in unimaginably difficult operating environments – with highway congestion, heavy demands from shippers and receivers, and with incredibly tight economic margins in which to try to earn a living,” Holmes Norton said during opening remarks of a hearing titled Improving the Effectiveness of the Federal Surface Transportation Safety Grant Programs.

“I recently became aware that many of the drivers new to the industry do not receive sufficient training before they’re expected to drive,” Holmes Norton continued.

“I am very interested in ways the federal government might improve safety through the setting of standards or addressing basic working conditions in the industry – which I believe will result in significant safety gains. And we can achieve this without expending many more federal dollars.”

OOIDA supports comprehensive entry-level driver training as a highway safety measure.

“As pointed out by Delegate Holmes Norton, driver training and the working conditions for the trucker are core issues that go way beyond a specific grant program,” said Ryan Bowley, the Association’s director of government affairs.

“The growing recognition of that is an encouraging thing, because on the other side of the issue you have the technology vendors and major motor carriers trying to divert away from the need for skilled drivers and away from the need for a better work environment. They’re the ones who say technology will solve a lot of the issues,” Bowley said.

Guest panelists at the hearing represented the National Transportation Safety Board, American Traffic Safety Services Association, Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, Governors Highway Safety Association, and the Intelligent Transportation Society of America.

Holmes Norton asked NTSB Vice Chairman Christopher Hart if he supported entry-level driver training for truckers.

“We have made recommendations regarding training over the years,” Hart said. “For a commercial driver’s license, all you need to do is pass the test. There is no regulated training requirement. We have made recommendations for various types of training over the years.”

Technology to control drivers
The hearing, chaired by the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., was one of a series in the House leading up to the next transportation authorization due in Congress later this fall.

The hearing turned to technology that vendors and lawmakers will be pushing for in the bill.

Subcommittee member John Mica, R-Fla., a former chairman of the full T&I Committee, said technology is available that can determine if a driver is fatigued by looking into the driver’s eyes. The panelists, however, said they were not familiar with the technology.

“If we aren’t giving money for research or to do something like that, and that technology is available, shame on us,” Mica said.

Peter Sweatman, representing the Intelligent Transportation Society, said lane-departure warning systems could help “correct” drivers.

“Whether or not (a) test would tell you they’re fatigued, the next thing that happens is they start to run out of the lane,” Sweatman said. “If they had a lane-departure warning system in that vehicle, that driver wakes up and corrects and goes back into the lane.”

OOIDA says training, and not the piling on of technology, is a more effective way to make highways safer.

“The concern about the immediate desire for technology is that it looks past some really basic things out there, like making sure you have an experienced and skilled operator behind the wheel of the vehicle,” Bowley said.

“Humans make mistakes, but so does technology,” he said. “The NTSB has raised that concern multiple times in the past. Pilots have gotten complacent because of autopilot, and so on.”

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