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Driver training: Dirty little secrets

Coral Beach
Staff Editor

Riddle: If the FMCSA were a Tootsie Pop and minimum training requirements for commercial drivers were the chocolaty center, how many licks would it take to get to the final rule?
Thirteen years worth of licks.

Riddle: How many hours of training behind the wheel of a big rig does an entry-level driver need to safely navigate the highways and byways of America?

Don’t worry, you haven’t lost your sense of humor. The punch lines are not funny, but the bureaucrats are still a joke – it took them 13 years to write a driver-training rule that does not include learning how to drive.

With the May 2004 publication of its final rule for “Minimum Training Requirements for Entry-level Commercial Drivers,” the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration effectively smeared egg all over its federal face.

That’s why OOIDA and two other groups have asked a federal appeals court to order the agency to clean up its act and try again to develop a training rule that “bears a rational connection with Congress’s goal of increasing safety on our nation’s highways,” which legislators ordered in 1991.


1991 – Congress directs the secretary of transportation to begin a rulemaking on entry-level driver training.

1995 – FHWA, as part of the rulemaking process, releases a cost-benefit analysis based on a 10-year period and 1995-value dollars. For the worst-case scenario, there would be a $1.32 billion net benefit to requiring a 147.5-hour curriculum. The best-case scenario shows an $11.08 billion net benefit.

1999 – Congress creates FMCSA and transfers FHWA’s regulatory responsibilities over CMVs – including the driver-training rule – to the new agency, specifying that FMCSA’s highest priority should be safety.

2004 – Thirteen years after the mandate from Congress, FMCSA issues a final rule on driver training. It requires 10 hours of non-driving training and redefines an entry-level driver as someone with less than one year of experience, replacing the previous definition of less than five years of experience.

It’s difficult to decide what aspect of the 13-year process has been the most ludicrous.

Perhaps the most ironic fact is that Congress had to order the feds to come up with a mandatory training rule in the first place. After all, beauticians are required to complete training programs in cutting and styling hair before they can become certified – shouldn’t someone driving a 65-foot, 80,000-pound rig also have minimum training requirements for the operation of their equipment?

Then there’s the fact that way back in 1985, the Federal Highway Administration issued its 320-hour “Model Curriculum for Training Tractor-Trailer Drivers.” It included at least 208 hours of actual driving: 92.25 hours on off-street driving ranges and 116 hours on actual streets.

So how did we end up with a final rule from FMCSA that requires zero hours of driving instruction and a mere 10 hours of instruction on non-driving topics?

Follow the money and you’ll find the answer to that question.

In comments filed with the FHWA, several big motor carriers complained that it would be too expensive for them to train drivers, even though it is well known that such businesses rarely pay for the training of their drivers. Of the few that do have training programs, they usually charge back the cost of the training to the drivers.

But there is another cost factor that the big carriers sweat about when they hear talk about mandatory minimum training – it’s the dirty little secret behind much of the opposition that nobody wants to talk about.

If the government mandates a minimum level of training for truckers, the meat in the seat suddenly can prove he is a cognizant individual who can demand higher base pay.

As outrageous as it is to think that highway safety can come down to the almighty dollar, there is another prong to the driver-training pitchfork that stabs just as deep into the heart of reason.

Through the 13-year process of developing the 10-hour training rule, the FHWA contradicted its own research. That practice continued with the birth of the FMCSA in 1999.

In its brief to the appeals court, OOIDA cited several such contradictions. Among them was the argument FMCSA used to justify the limited list of training topics required in its rule. The rule requires a total of 10 hours of training in:

  • Driver qualifications; 
  • Hours of service; 
  • Driver wellness; and 
  • Whistleblower protection.

OOIDA’s legal brief states that FMCSA attempted to justify the limited topics covered in the rule by asserting that CDL tests examine CMV drivers on knowledge and skill. FMCSA said it was not requiring entry-level drivers to receive training in areas that are covered in the CDL test because such training would be redundant.

“At the same time, however, the agency noted that it did not think ‘that the knowledge to pass the CDL test [was] sufficient to determine training adequacy,’ ” OOIDA’s brief states, quoting FMCSA’s own documents.

An official with the association that represents those who administer CDL tests agrees with FMCSA’s assertion that a passing score on the CDL test does not necessarily mean a driver has had adequate training in how to actually drive a Class 8 truck.

“I don’t think the CDL tests and manual were ever designed to fulfill that purpose,” said Mike Calvin of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, according to OOIDA’s legal brief.

“I think there is … room for us to make some changes, to become more responsive and make the CDL test a little more demanding. But I think that needs to be coupled with some form of required training.”

So despite the order from Congress to develop a driver training rule to improve safety, and in contradiction to its own statement that passing the CDL test does not guarantee that a driver has had sufficient training, FMCSA’s final rule does not require any actual driver training.

This irrational justification not only abandons the congressional mandate to address the need for training, it violates basic common sense. A rule on driver training should include lessons in how to actually drive the vehicles for which the drivers are being trained.

Perhaps the explanation can be found in the goal FMCSA stated in its final rule, which claims that the agency wrote the 10-hour training requirement “to reduce the number of crashes caused by entry-level CMV drivers.”

That goal was met before the ink was dry on the final rule – by changing its definition of entry-level drivers, the agency guaranteed its success. Prior to the May 2004 rule on entry-level training requirements, an entry-level driver was defined as a person with less than five years of experience.

During the rulemaking process, the FMCSA proposed changing that to less than two years. By the time it finished watering down the reg, an entry-level driver was defined as a person with less than one year of experience.

Thus, by decreasing the number of years of experience required, the agency effectively decreased the number of entry-level drivers on the road and therefore automatically met its stated goal “to reduce the number of crashes caused by entry-level CMV drivers.”

This kind of underhanded doubletalk and inept action is American government at its worst, and that’s what makes it necessary for groups like OOIDA to constantly watchdog Washington.