On December 8 (2016), the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) published a rule mandating specific training requirements for new CDL drivers. That rule, though delayed numerous times by the Trump administration, requires that new drivers undergo approved behind-the-wheel training at both a driving range and on public roads. It also mandates curriculum standards for training providers.
It has taken the DOT years to come up with the new rule. After countless discussions, open comment periods, and plenty of debate from within and without the trucking industry, the rule that was finally adopted hardly seems adequate to achieve its intended goals. So now the question is this: does the rule need to be made stronger or scrapped altogether?
A good way to understand the issue is to frame it in terms of training hours. Though the final rule published by the DOT does not mandate a certain number of required training hours, a previous draft of the rule did. It stated that drivers would have to undergo 30 hours of behind-the-wheel training – at bare minimum – to get a CDL.
As so many others have pointed out, 30 hours behind the wheel in a training scenario equates to only 600-1000 miles driven. That is hardly thorough when you consider that an experienced driver working national routes can cover the same amount of mileage in two days. Thirty hours of training cannot possibly prepare new CDL drivers for everything they’ll encounter in the real world.
The Graduated License Alternative
If training standards need to be improved – and that debate has not even been settled yet – there is a better way to address it than the DOT rule published in December. That better way is a graduated licensing system similar to what most states already use for licensing passenger car drivers. What would such a system look like?
At Utah-based C.R. England, new drivers coming to work for the company after completing their CDL training spend a certain amount of time working with driver trainers. Other national carriers follow similar models. Under this model, drivers are not allowed to work solo until they have completed their term driving with a trainer. Furthermore, the driver trainer must agree that a driver is ready to go solo before he or she can do so. A graduated licensing system could take advantage of what companies like C.R. England are already doing.
New drivers could be given a ‘junior’ CDL upon completing their training and going to work for a major carrier. All their miles are logged anyway, so obtaining a full CDL would be a simple matter of putting in so many miles with a driver trainer who ultimately signs off on the driver’s fitness to go solo.
It is important to remember that states already do this with passenger vehicle drivers. For example, a teenage driver might be able to get a junior license at age 16 but only after completing a certain number of hours certified by a parent or guardian. The driver maintains that junior license until age 18, whereupon full license privileges are granted.
The point of the DOT rule is to improve overall safety by mandating a standard amount and quality of training. The intent is good, but the implementation is terribly flawed. Trucking is no different than any other industry in that the best kind of training is not found at school. It is found in the real world of work.
Should the DOT rule ever be fully implemented it will probably not result in safer, more experienced drivers on the roads. A system that takes advantage of real-world training would.