Nathan Wilson | Journalist
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 sponsoring a mix of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate. As if to underscore the lack of controversy around the legislation, it was reintroduced in 2021 by three Republicans, three Democrats and an independent and won nearly two dozen more Republican sponsors before emerging as a cornerstone of the plan. action for Biden-Harris administration trucking after it passed. .
The bipartisan support for the legislation masks the fact that it offers the keys to the heaviest commercial vehicle classes to a class of drivers with one of the worst safety records. While its proponents point out that most states already allowed drivers between the ages of 18 and 21 to obtain a commercial driver’s license, they were limited to interstate commerce and excluded from insurance policies held by small trucking companies.
The Drive-SAFE Act now allows these drivers to operate commercial vehicles interstate and creates a streamlined path to earning a CDL through employer-sponsored apprenticeship programs. Apprenticeships include a two-phase training program in which learners drive under the supervision of an experienced operator. The experienced driver must be 21 years of age or older, have had no accidents or points resulting from movement violations in the past year, and must have held their CDL for at least two years.
While carriers must register with the Department of Labor before implementing a CDL apprenticeship program and ensure that their apprentices meet the performance criteria established by law, each company may design its program differently. For companies such as Schneider, that means squeezing the required 400 hours of training into a five- or six-week course at one of its regional training centers. On the other end of the spectrum, Roehl Transport advertises a veterans’ apprenticeship designed to last two years during which service members are eligible to receive GI Bill educational benefits.
Despite the newly created 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 in the cab of the vehicle.
In his request, Werner said “the CDL holder will remain in the vehicle at all times while the CLP holder is driving, but not in the front seat.” He claimed that requiring a supervising driver to remain in the passenger seat during operation by a commercial learner’s permit holder would be a significant burden, and said waiving the requirement would allow for achieve an equivalent level of safety since, “Werner believes there is no difference between CLP holders who have passed the CDL competency test and other truck drivers on the road.
The FMCSA granted Werner the exemption effective March 31 for a period of five years with the possibility of renewal. In its decision, the FMCSA said, “The Agency believes that the exemption will achieve a level of safety equal to or greater than the level of safety achieved without the exemption.”
In public comments submitted in response to the waiver request, the FMCSA noted opposition consisting of “truck drivers, driver-trainers, others and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA). OOIDA’s public comment stated. “As we move closer to the entry into force of the novice driver training rule next year, the FMCSA should find ways to further strengthen the training requirements, not weaken them.”
FMCSA acknowledges that another commentator, Roger Issacs, also opposed the proposal. He said: ‘It would open the door for license holders to race as a team driver, when some might not be able to pass a driving test, with no eye on what they might do with it. wrong, when (the) trainer is asleep in (the sleeper.”
The legislation allows 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 in order to maintain the program at maximum capacity. To support 3,000 apprenticeship participants over three years, FMCSA estimates that it will take approximately 1,000 trucking companies to participate in the program.
Since insurance companies prevent trucking companies from employing young and inexperienced drivers, it will be primarily the large, self-insured carriers that will benefit from apprenticeship programs. The FMCSA says there were fewer than 5,000 freight carriers with more than 100 trucks in 2020. In contrast, it said there were more than 575,000 carriers with 100 or fewer drivers.
Drivers between the ages of 18 and 21 are excluded from commercial driving jobs by insurance companies for a simple reason: they are involved in road accidents at higher rates than any other age group other than drivers under the age of 18. While large vehicles generally prove to be safer for their occupants than smaller vehicles during a collision, they also cause more damage to other vehicles during a collision.
Critics of the apprenticeship program argue that reducing the age of eligibility for drivers to drive trucks loaded with goods will pose a danger to everyone else on the road and sends the message that road safety is secondary to supply chain stability.