Current driver training standards: ‘Absolute lunacy’

July 22, 2021

Mark Schremmer

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One way to improve highway safety and driver retention is to improve the training program for entry-level truck drivers.

That was the message from several industry stakeholders during a driver retention roundtable discussion hosted by the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Department of Labor on July 8.

“The driver training stuff … Jeez, we have so far to go in those areas,” OOIDA President Todd Spencer said. “It is absolute lunacy that we have big carriers today that’ll have a trainer and a trainee in the truck, and the trainer may have no more than six months of experience. And they go down the road, and that passes as acceptable.”

Although improving pay was the most common suggestion of how to lower the driver turnover rate, working conditions also were a frequent topic. Turnover rates for large long-haul carriers are more than 90%, meaning that plenty of new drivers acquire a commercial driver’s license each year but quickly look for a new job.

Steve Viscelli, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and author of “The Big Rig, Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream,” said those working conditions are especially poor for entry-level truck drivers.

“Our current driver pipeline is organized backward,” he said. “It throws workers into the deep end with almost no support. They start out in schools with little investment in their long-term success, and then most of them can only get the toughest jobs working over the road for weeks or months at a time without the systems promise free training, but then lock workers into a year of working 80 or more hours per week, often for minimum wage or less.

Improving training is a good place to start to fix the problem, Viscelli said.

“We need to set clear standards for training operations … Instead of starting people out with the biggest trucks in the most dangerous operations and in the worst working conditions, whenever possible we should start them out in small trucks and local operations with regular schedules that get them home every night. This is not only the most sensible thing to do for safety, but it’s the best way to provide the greatest number and diversity of workers with an opportunity for a successful start to a trucking career.”

An entry-level driver training rule is on its way but won’t take effect until Feb. 7.

The effective date won’t come until nearly six years after the rule was published. Plus, such groups as the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association have spent even longer advocating for a comprehensive entry-level driver training rule.

“What I’m going to say should be shocking … it should be scary to realize that even today, as mature as trucking is, there are no entry-level requirements for someone to get a CDL,” Spencer said. “If you manage to drive a truck around a few cones, somebody will give you a commercial driver’s license, and then somebody will hire you and turn you loose.”

Spencer acknowledged the incoming rule as progress but said the work is not done. The rule, which takes effect on Feb. 7, still does not include a specified amount of time required for behind-the-wheel training for either range or on-the-road training.

“We supported from the very beginning of our organization (OOIDA started in 1973) the need for better training,” Spencer said. “We haven’t gotten there yet. I appreciate what FMCSA has done, but it should be just a starter thing.” LL

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Mark Schremmer, senior editor, joined Land Line in 2015. An award-winning journalist and former assistant news editor at The Topeka Capital-Journal, he brings fresh ideas, solid reporting skills, and more than two decades of journalism experience to our staff.