Training New Truckers & Building Experience for Safety
A safe, experienced, and professional driver behind the wheel of a tractor trailer forms the foundation of motor carrier safety. However, unlike airline pilots, railroad engineers, and tugboat captains, there has never been a requirement that tractor-trailer drivers complete a basic training regimen that ensures they know how to operate the vehicle safely in real-world conditions. This is the case, despite the fact that the general public is in constant contact with trucks and that approximately 80 percent of all truck-involved accidents are the result of a “human factor.” A good portion of the “truck driver training” programs available are focused on making sure that the individual passes the CDL road test and not on giving the new driver the skills and knowledge to control their 80,000 pound tractor trailer.
Around the country, there are what can only be deemed “CDL mills” offering folks hungry for a job a “guarantee” that they will pass the CDL written and road tests. A quick Internet search shows websites offering CDL training on DVD, test answers with a “guarantee that you will pass,” and schools that are proud to tout their “100% pass rating” – despite the fact that the new drivers may only receive less than a day’s worth of instruction on what they will be tested on, not what they will need to know as a truck driver. One school was even offering a coupon deal.
Not only are there no requirements that these schools actually provide their students any real training beyond how to pass the CDL test, there is not a requirement that instructors meet a basic level of qualification. Although many schools and training programs see that new drivers are taught by safe, experienced current or former truck drivers who have been themselves taught basic instructional techniques, too many programs rely on individuals who themselves are new to the trucking industry. It is hard to learn the safe way to operate a truck when your teacher is still learning the basics.
The consequences of this situation are visible on an almost daily basis. New truck drivers, who are put into an industry and a lifestyle that is unlike any other make poor decisions and cause accidents, costing lives and also tens of millions of dollars in costs to the economy. The enforcement community responds the only way it knows how – by issuing more citations. And the safety regulatory machine swings into action by issuing more regulations and developing new systems that put greater and greater pressure on the truck driver and ever increasing costs on the industry.
A growing cost to trucking companies large and small is the turnover as new drivers enter and leave the industry. Those who hope stick with trucking are soon caught between these two ends of the vise and all too often are squeezed out. This ensures that instead of building a new generation of truck drivers who will have 20-30 years of experience like so many of today’s truckers, tomorrow’s trucking industry will be dominated by drivers who have little experience and who are not interested in making trucking their career.
There is a better way to improve highway safety while also building a new group of career-focused truckers for the future. Instead of constantly churning through drivers and absorbing the costs of new regulatory mandates, a focus on improving entry-level driver training directly attacks the high percentage of human factors crashes by taking the trucking industry and the safety and enforcement community back to basics. Instead of leaving safety to chance or hoping that some piece of technology will take over, this approach gives the new truck drivers the driving knowledge and skills that will make them safe truckers. It also sets the stage for prioritizing industry efforts to give all new drivers critical “on the job” training, providing them with the “road knowledge” that will keep those new drivers in the industry not for a few years or until something better comes along, but for their entire career.
In developing this approach, OOIDA turned to the folks who know best and who have the most at stake when it comes to highway safety: the experienced and safe trucking professionals that make up our membership and who are on the road every day. They told us what is going on out there in terms of training and how there needs to be a focus on preparing new truckers for what they will encounter on the road. They told us that there needs to be a strong focus on making sure the person doing the training is actually qualified. They told us that going through training and passing a test isn’t enough. To truly operate to the highest level of safely, new drivers need an opportunity where they can really learn about the truck and learn about the industry from an experienced and safe driver.
Based on feedback from our membership and the insight of individual career truck drivers with several hundred years of combined trucking experience, including several who worked for many years as driver trainers, OOIDA proposes the Safe, Mentored, and Responsibly Trained Future Truck Drivers Act (SMART Future Truck Drivers Act). The SMART Future Truck Drivers Act forges new ground by starting every new long-haul tractor-trailer driver off with a strong safety foundation. Behind-the-wheel training will be conducted by instructors who must meet FMCSA certification requirements. During the training period, the candidate will learn the basics of safe tractor-trailer operations, including how to operate the vehicle to maximize fuel efficiency, while also learning firsthand about compliance with the safety regulations – not simply learning barely enough to pass a test. All of this will be documented and their instructor will certify that the driver candidate is proficient in the necessary subjects before they go take a CDL test.
Our proposal also calls upon FMCSA to work with the stakeholder community – truck drivers, motor carriers, enforcement personnel, state DMVs, and others – to develop a system where new truckers must go through a period where they gain experience behind the wheel with an experienced and safe driver. The agency and stakeholders will be charged with working together to ensure that an “on the job” experience building period, similar to that required in countless other industries across the country, is structured in a way that best balances out the training needs of new drivers with the realities of the trucking industry. The development of this period, when combined with strengthened training requirements, will ensure that new drivers are fully experienced in the safe and compliant operation of their vehicles and that they will have an immediate impact on improving highway safety.