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Rebound of trucking industry puts focus on driver safety

Posted On: May. 31, 2015 12:00 AM CST

Federal training requirements being developed for entry-level commercial vehicle jobs could help improve safety among inexperienced drivers, but it also could make it more difficult for trucking firms to recruit new hires during a nationwide truck driver shortage.

“There, without a doubt, will be more hurdles to clear to provide training for drivers,” said Boyd Stephenson, director of hazardous materials and commercial driver licensing policy at the Arlington, Virginia-based American Trucking Associations. “This means that it's going to be more difficult to get new drivers onto the road. We can only hope that it also means that we're going to be able to get safer drivers onto the road.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration convened a 26-member advisory committee in February to develop safety regulations for entry-level professional truck and bus drivers. Recommendations developed this spring by the committee — including representatives of the trucking and insurance industries, as well as government and labor representatives — are expected to be reviewed by the FMCSA and published this fall as a notice of proposed rulemaking.

The rulemaking discussion was mandated by the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act, better known as MAP 21, a federal transportation bill that generally reauthorized funding for federal surface transportation spending that President Barack Obama signed into law in July 2012.

Discussions about new-driver safety training come at an opportune time because the trucking industry is growing again despite losses during the Great Recession, but it faces an aging workforce.

“There are a lot of baby boomers that are in the trucking industry,” said Rich Bleser, senior vice president and fleet specialty practice leader at Marsh Risk Consulting in Milwaukee. “We have to start recruiting that younger individual, that first- and second-career individual, to enter the transportation arena and become truck drivers.”

Nancy Bendickson, senior consultant at Aon Global Risk Consulting in Minneapolis, said more trucking companies are hiring and training newer drivers to fill open positions but have been doing so without a consensus on standard practices for such training.

Trucking industry companies agree that entry-level drivers should be trained to operate large commercial vehicles, Ms. Bendickson said.

“I think that due to their lack of experience, say, in handling equipment, driving situations or even understanding all that's mandated of them, that could increase their risk for having a motor vehicle crash,” she said.

Mr. Stephenson said entry-level commercial drivers are more likely to have accidents that involve property damage than injuries or fatalities. That's because they are cautious about being behind the wheel of large trucks, but often have not mastered backing, turning or other common maneuvers.

Mr. Stephenson, a member of the FMCSA rulemaking committee, said committee participants have been divided on whether new drivers should have to spend a minimum number of training hours on the road to demonstrate their competency or whether they should have to pass a test showing they can perform certain functions while driving a commercial truck.

“That means that there are people that will very quickly demonstrate these things and move on to testing and getting their license,” Mr. Stephenson said. “It also means that there are people who will take far more time than the hours would require or might never meet the necessary safety requirements. So (an hours-based requirement) essentially sets a static standard, but (a performance-based requirement) says you must check the boxes and then you may move on.”

Darren Beard, senior loss control consultant and transportation and fleet safety specialist at Lockton Cos. L.L.C. in Kansas City, Missouri, believes new training requirements could hinder trucking hiring and create a burden for smaller companies, which comprise a majority of the U.S. trucking industry.

For instance, the training requirements could prevent job seekers from considering the trucking industry, Mr. Beard said. He's also concerned that trucking companies could seek experienced drivers to avoid new training regulations, making it harder for smaller firms to compete for recruits.

“The drivers who will have enough experience not to be classified entry-level drivers will obviously become a larger commodity than they already are today, and my fear is that it will further push people from looking at the trucking industry as a viable career,” he said.

Additionally, Mr. Beard said larger trucking companies likely already have training programs that would meet any federal standards, leaving smaller firms with the task of developing new curricula in the wake of new federal training standards.

While the FMCSA and the trucking advisory committee develop training requirements for newer commercial drivers, experts say trucking firms can take a proactive role in helping entry-level drivers stay safe.

That includes implementing defensive driving programs, working to reduce driver distraction from cellphones and other devices and promoting healthy lifestyles that help drivers stay alert and well on the road.

“I think it's going to be really important that (employers) get some behind-the-wheel time with new drivers and that they provide an ongoing coaching evaluation of the driver to really ensure that driver has the knowledge and the driving skills needed to become a successful commercial vehicle driver for them,” Ms. Bendickson said.