Training Day

Training Day

Copyright 2008, Traffic World, Inc.

At a particular state Department of Motor Vehicles site a few years ago, the road-testing portion for a basic driver''s license included one especially devious trap.

It was a stop sign placed at a maddeningly random spot several feet short of the lot''s exit, leading to a street where presumably the driving test would begin. The trouble was, anyone who failed to stop at the seemingly arbitrary point would not drive off the lot - not with a driver''s license, in any case.

The idea, of course, was that no score on written examinations would prove anyone could drive safely if they ignored the bright red sign right in front of the car.

Federal trucking regulators came to the same conclusion several years ago - many years before the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration came into existence, in fact - and now they''re taking action. Back on Dec. 26, a day when many are cleaning up wrapping paper and searching for lost AA batteries, the FMCSA released a proposed rule that would require that drivers go through a certain amount of specified training, including time behind the wheel, and that the training be given by accredited programs.

It also would seriously ramp up training time, from the current 10 hours for entry-level drivers to 120 hours for new drivers seeking a Class A license, including 44 hours behind the wheel.

The plan has gotten a lukewarm reception in parts of the trucking industry, where some want to see a more general approach focused more on testing driver proficiency rather than on specified training. FMCSA Administrator John Hill may not have helped win over trucking companies and shippers when he told Bloomberg News recently the proposed rule would "require truck drivers to be paid more."

Nothing in the rule actually says that, although the FMCSA estimates the truck driver training would cost some $167.8 million a year.

Yet several trucking companies already are matching the FMCSA standards with their own driver training programs. And they''ve done that even after giving the agency a head start.

The notice from the FMCSA gives until March 25 to comment on the proposed rule, but in fact, this has been before the trucking industry since 1991, when commercial vehicle driver training was included in that year''s ISTEA law. The FHWA issued its first notice on the rule in 1993 and then it took a full decade to get a rule written.

In the meantime, a 1995 study by the Federal Highway Administration, "Assessing the Adequacy of Commercial Vehicle Driver Training," came to a startling conclusion. It found, "Effective entry-level driver training needs to include behind-the-wheel instruction on how to operate a heavy vehicle."

A federal court cited that study in 2005 when it threw out the FMCSA''s initial rule, saying the agency had ignored its own findings "that behind-the-wheel training is essential."

Now the agency has a proposal recognizing that, and it still won''t take effect for three years - in 2011. That''s full 20 years since Congress passed the requirement, which is long enough to pause at any stop sign.