Volunteer before you’re drafted

A few years ago, a truck driver in west Virginia crashed his truck at the bottom of a mountain road. During the ensuing inquiry, an investigator asked the driver whether he had downshifted before heading down the hill. The driver said he didn’t know how to do that. He claimed that no one had ever told him about downshifting.

It’s quite possible – perhaps even probable – that this driver was simply pleading ignorance as an easy excuse for a horrible mistake. But suppose he was telling the truth. Clearly, some training on mountain driving should be a part of any driver training program. Yet, there are no minimum standards, at least on the national level, for truck driver training.

To date, the trucking industry has escaped mandatory minimum standards, but not for lack of interest on the part of the feds. A decade ago, the Department of Transportation issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking to explore minimum standards, but it never advanced further. And just last year, DOT included minimum training for both novice drivers and drivers pulling multiple trailers in its safety action plan. A change in administration, however, raises questions about whether DOT will follow through on that initiative.

Some might argue that training standards aren’t necessary since tightening commercial driver’s license standards will ensure better drivers. Certainly, the CDL program changes mandated by Congress two years ago and currently under Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration rulemaking will help.

Although these measures are overdue, they are hardly substitutes for training. The CDL enhancements enacted in 1999 are about taking bad drivers off the road after they become drivers.

To date, higher priorities and hurdles such as the required cost/benefit analysis have kept mandatory training standards at bay. But as with so many things in trucking, it will take just one high-profile crash involving an undertrained driver to change all that.

At some point, the trucking industry probably will face legislation or regulations imposing minimum standards. If it comes to that, politicians and bureaucrats will be in charge of setting those standards. Wouldn’t it be better for the industry to take the initiative?

Fortunately, such standards already exist. The nonprofit Professional Truck Driver Institute developed skill, curriculum and course standards for entry-level truck driver training five years ago and certifies driver training schools to those standards. Today, those standards are voluntary. Schools aren’t required to obtain certification, and carriers aren’t required to hire drivers who graduated from certified schools.

If carriers don’t insist on hiring drivers trained to PTDI standards, there’s no compelling need for many truck driving schools to obtain PTDI certification. In recent years, carriers couldn’t afford the luxury of demanding that their drivers be trained to PTDI standards because only a fraction of schools are certified. Beggars can’t be choosers, and trucking companies certainly were beggars.

Given today’s economic slump, it may be time for trucking companies that hire entry-level drivers to get choosy. Insisting that drivers get their training at PTDI-certified schools will help ensure better drivers and encourage more schools to adopt minimum standards. When and if the feds decide to mandate a certain level of training, perhaps they will have a reasonable set of standards waiting in the wings.

Avery Vise is editorial director of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail avise@etrucker.com.