Going in reverse

By Randy Grider
[email protected]

Several months ago a reader called my office to discuss problems with unqualified truck drivers. Certainly not the first call I’ve received on this subject.

The Mississippi trucker’s beef was with his company and a temporary driver hired to fill in during his absence.

First, he told me that the temp driver had left his log book in the sleeper berth. Looking through it, he discovered the temp driver had logged sleeper berth at the same time he had recorded he was driving. That’s quite a logistical feat, perhaps involving cloning or some kind of out-of-body experience.

But the real kicker was when the regular driver made his dedicated delivery after returning to work. Someone at the receiving dock told him that his replacement had come into the office and loudly announced that he needed someone to back the truck into the dock. He didn’t know how.

The story reminded me of an old Chevy Chase movie called Funny Farm. In the film, the sheriff of the town takes a taxi everywhere he goes because he repeatedly flunked his driver’s test.

It’s funny in Hollywood, but in the real world, this is serious business. Serious enough, in fact, that last month, an appeals court in Washington, D.C., ruled that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s regulations governing minimum requirements for entry-level drivers are inadequate.

The biggest problem the court had with the regulations was their complete lack of on-highway training requirements.

What’s especially strange about this oversight is that FMCSA developed the regulations to satisfy safety advocates’ demand for stricter requirements for new drivers. FMCSA used a study (the Adequacy Report) published in 1995 by its predecessor, the Federal Highway Administration, as the basis for its regulation. The report concluded that in order for any training program to be “adequate,” it must include “on-street hours” of training.

The Adequacy Report’s model for entry-level driver training was a 1986 FHWA study called the Model Curriculum, which recommended 320 hours of instruction, including 116 hours of on-street training and 92.25 additional hours of driving-range time.

The Model Curriculum was the foundation of today’s Professional Truck Driver Institute of America. To qualify as adequate under PTDIA standards, a truck driver training program must provide 147.5 hours of instruction, including 44 hours of combined highway and range time.

But when the FMCSA finally released its long-overdue rule in May 2004, after legal pressure from safety advocates, it ignored the Adequacy Report’s recommendations. Instead, the FMSCA opted for minimum requirements that suggested, but did not set, 10 hours of classroom education that focused on medical qualifications and drug and alcohol testing, hours-of-service regulations, wellness and whistleblower protection.

Soon after, the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety challenged FMCSA’s driver training regulations, claiming they ignored the agency’s own earlier recommendations for more rigorous minimum training standards.

FMCSA “opted for a program that focuses on areas unrelated to the practical demands of operating a commercial motor vehicle,” the appeals court said. Still, the court will allow the rule to stay in place pending the completion of further rulemaking.

With drivers on the road minus the skills to back into a dock, it’s clear the court ruling was warranted. FMCSA probably wouldn’t have to look much further than the PTDIA standards for a workable rule. That should be the minimum the industry demands. If FMSCA thinks that about four weeks of instruction that includes 40-plus hours training behind the wheel is too much for a new driver, then we’re in serious trouble.

Teaching drivers about drug tests or the importance of washing their hands to avoid diseases is not a bad thing, but shouldn’t we also make sure they can find reverse? Obviously, the appeals court thinks so. And so do we.