Update: Nov. 21, 2016: The rulemaking process for the proposed new federal minimum standards for truck driving schools has been extended. The new rules are now expected to be published to the Federal Register in Spring of 2017.
STOCKTON — The big rig is as common a sight to Central Valley drivers as the orchards and farmland that produce the products many of the trucks carry.
Operating those trucks is an industry that faces myriad challenges, two of the biggest being improving driver safety and finding well-trained drivers in the first place.
“The shortage of trained drivers is huge,” said Steve Corral, owner of Chappell Transport Inc. in Stockton. “It’s huge because, as a company, we set the bar high. Guys that are just breaking into the industry aren’t going to be the safest guys on the road.”
Corral’s company transports automobiles across seven western states. Finding drivers who can safely operate those vehicles is a major challenge. In the past, his company has had to leave trucks empty for months while it looked for drivers who could handle the requirements to drive the vehicle imposed by both the trucking firm and its insurance company.
“It takes a while for the safety part of it to mature for a driver,” he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, one out of every six American workers killed on the job is a tractor-trailer truck driver. Most deaths that occur are the result of transportation incidents. The profession also ranks sixth among the top occupations with the highest rates of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses.
Motorists often worry about drivers behind the wheel of the rig, but many times those in the smallest cars cause the biggest problems.
Corral recounted an incident with one of his trucks that was traveling up the west side of the Altamont Pass. The driver knew that the far right slow lane ended and traffic would merge into the next lane. A small hatchback waited until the last second when the lane ended, then moved across the lane, cutting off the truck. The resulting collision sent the hatchback across two lanes of traffic. Fortunately, no one was injured.
“Without missing a beat, the woman jumps out of the car and asks ‘Why did you hit me?” said Corral.
Small two lane highways, traffic congestion and fog add to driver hazards in the Valley. Even the larger, well-traveled highways can be challenging. Highway 99, a four-lane thoroughfare that runs the length of the Central Valley, was rated as the deadliest highway in the country by ValuePenguin, a private consumer research organization based in New York.
Adding to the safety challenges trucking companies face is a nationwide shortage of drivers. The American Trucking Association reports the industry is currently 38,000 drivers short of its need. The industry will need an additional 175,000 drivers by 2024.
That need for drivers has sparked a gold rush of new truck driving schools. While many are reputable companies that give drivers the skills they need, others produce drivers who can’t pass a truck company’s rudimentary skills test.
“We get people on a weekly basis that, after the state has licensed them, can’t pass a hauling company’s driving test,” said Western Pacific Truck School President Bob Schuer.
While the truck driving industry faces a host of regulations regarding everything from vehicle emissions to the number of hours drivers can log, training standards are largely nonexistent.
Schools in California are not regulated as to what they must teach so long as they charge less than $2,499 for the course. Often drivers are taught to drive, and take their Class A license test on equipment that bears little resemblance to the vehicles they will be driving on the road.
“If they have a truck and they want to teach someone to drive, they have few regulations that they have to follow,” said Schuer. “A lot of them use what is called a city tractor. It has a lot less difficult transmission than what most companies use.”
While long haul companies shy away from less skilled drivers, small operations or agricultural companies operating their own trucks sometimes take the risk.
“This (training standards) is something as a company, we have been fighting for several years.” said Schuer.
Schuer’s school has a stringent curriculum that includes 160 hours of education, including 40 hours in the classroom and 120 hours in the truck. Western Pacific Truck School is also a member and meets the standards of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association, a trade group that provides curriculum standard for schools.
“Some schools use equipment that, while it may meet the technical meaning of a truck, doesn’t give drivers what they need to be safe,” said association President Don Lefeve.
The proliferation of schools with varying degrees of training, has led many national long haul companies to hire from association member schools.
“We have companies that recruit our drivers so they have a job waiting before they even finish the class,” said Schuer.
Another issue is the patchwork of state regulations that oversee driver training. While many states such as California have little to no regulation, others including Illinois and Washington require a160-hour program.
Lefeve’s group has been working with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to set federal standards as to what schools must teach new drivers.
The result has been the Entry Driver Training rule. While not nearly as tough as CVTA requirements, it does set minimums regarding qualifications related to instructors, testing and training vehicles. It also requires 30 hours behind the wheel. The training must include 10 hours on a truck range, 10 hours on the road and 10 hours that is a combination of the two, depending on what the driver needs to work on. The new rule also establishes a registry of driver training providers.
“It is ultimately based on performance,” said Lefeve. “Drivers then have to take an assessment and get 80 percent.”
The rule is a result of a negotiated rulemaking process, involving regulators, safety advocates and industry stakeholders. It has taken nearly three years to put together.
“This may be one of the longest rulemaking efforts in all of rulemaking,” said Lefeve.
An earlier effort to rein in the driving school industry failed amid legal challenges from safety advocates. The proposed rule was released for public comment in March and will be published to the Federal Register, Nov. 10.
It is hoped that new federal minimums will at the very least address some of the least rigorous schools that are putting driver on the road. In turn, it is hoped that will improve overall road safety.
“The CDL (commercial driver’s license) mills exist,” said Lefeve. “With the new rules, they are going to have to get serious (about their curriculum) real fast.”