Drive-Safe Act ignores safety

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Nathan Wilson | Reporter
The Drive-SAFE Act was incorporated into last year’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill to provide the trucking industry’s largest carriers with access to a new pool of drivers.
Originally introduced in 2019 the legislation languished for several years despite earning sponsorship from a mixture of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate. As if to highlight the lack of controversy surrounding the legislation, it was reintroduced in 2021 by three Republicans, three Democrats and an Independent and gained nearly two dozen additional Republican sponsors before appearing as a cornerstone of the Biden-Harris Administration’s Trucking Action Plan after passage.
The legislation’s bipartisan support obscures the fact that it offers the keys to the heaviest classes of commercial vehicles to a class of drivers with one of the worst safety records. While its supporters point out that most states already allowed 18 to 21 year old drivers to obtain a commercial driver’s license, they were restricted from interstate commerce and excluded from insurance policies held by smaller trucking companies.
The Drive-SAFE Act now authorizes these drivers to operate commercial vehicles between states and creates a simplified pathway for earning a CDL through employer sponsored apprenticeship programs. The apprenticeships include a two phase training program in which apprentices drive under the supervision of an experienced operator. The experienced driver must be 21 or older, have no accidents or points from moving violations within the past year, and must have held their CDL for at least two years.

This article published in the June 2, 2022, print edition

While carriers must register with the Department of Labor prior to implementing a CDL apprenticeship program and ensure their apprentices achieve performance benchmarks established by the law, each company may design its program differently. For companies such as Schneider, this means squeezing the 400 hours of required training into a five or six week course at one of its regional training facilities. At the other end of the spectrum, Roehl Transport advertises an apprenticeship for veterans designed to last two years during which service-members are eligible to receive GI Bill educational benefits.
Despite the newly established pool of drivers, some carriers continue to seek additional regulatory relief. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently granted an exemption requested by Werner Enterprises to allow their experienced drivers to supervise Commercial Learner’s Permit(CLP) holders from anywhere within the vehicle’s cab.
In its request, Werner stated, “the CDL holder will remain in the vehicle at all times while the CLP holder is driving- just not in the front seat.” It claimed the requirement for a supervisory driver to remain in the passenger seat during operation by a commercial leaner’s permit holder would be a significant burden, and stated that exemption from the requirement would achieve an equivalent level of safety since, “Werner believes that there is no difference between the CLP holders who have passed the CDL skills test and other truck drivers on the road.”
FMCSA granted Werner the exemption effective March 31 for a period of five years with the possibility for renewal. In its decision, FMCSA stated “The Agency believes the exemption will achieve a level of safety that is equivalent to, or greater than, the level of safety achieved without the exemption.”
In public comments submitted in response to the exemption request, FMCSA noted opposition consisting of “truck drivers, driver-trainers, other individuals, and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA). OOIDA’s public comment stated. “As we move closer to the Entry-Level Driver Training rule taking effect next year, FMCSA should be finding ways to further bolster training requirements, not weaken them.”
FMCSA acknowledge another commenter, Roger Issacs, also objected to the proposal. He stated, “This would open the door for permit holders to run as a team driver, when some may not be able to pass a driver’s test, with no eyes on anything they could do wrong, when (the) trainer is asleep in (the) sleeper.”
The legislation authorizes 3,000 apprentices at a time to participate in CDL apprenticeships during the three-year pilot program. FMCSA expects new apprentices to enter apprenticeships as older ones complete them to maintain the program at its maximum capacity. To sustain 3,000 apprenticeship participants over three years, FMCSA estimates that it will need approximately 1,000 trucking companies to participate in the program.
Because insurance companies restrict trucking companies from employing young and inexperienced drivers, it will mostly be larger, self-insured carriers who benefit from apprenticeship programs. FMCSA indicates there were fewer than 5,000 freight carriers with more than 100 trucks in 2020. By contrast, it indicated there were more than 575,000 carriers with 100 or fewer drivers.
Drivers aged 18 to 21 are restricted from commercial driving jobs by insurance companies for a simple reason: they are involved in vehicular accidents at higher rates than any age group other than drivers under the age of 18. While large vehicles typically prove safer for their occupants than small vehicles during a collision, they also cause more damage to other vehicles during a collision.
Critics of the apprenticeship program argue that reducing the eligibility age for drivers to operate freight-laden trucks will pose a danger to everyone else on the road, and sends the message that roadway safety is secondary to supply chain stability.