FMCSA published its long-anticipated rulemaking proposal for defining minimum training requirements for entry-level commercial drivers in late December. Under the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), all new and/or “upgrading” CDL applicants would be required to prove they had successfully completed an accredited 120-hour training program.

The NPRM was developed in response to a 2005 District Court of Appeals ruling directing FMCSA to rewrite its previous (May 2004) driver training rule because it did not require behind-the-wheel (BTW) instruction and testing.

Under the NPRM, FMCSA would require Class A CDL applicants to undergo 44 hours of BTW instruction and 76 hours of classroom instruction, and Class B applicants 32 hours of BTW and 58 hours of classroom training.

This proposal goes a long way toward improving entry-level driver training standards. BTW training ensures that applicants learn such skills as speed and space management, hazard recognition, nighttime driving techniques, and skid control and recovery; classroom training covers issues like air-brake operation, preventive maintenance techniques and accident-scene procedures. In addition, training providers would need full accreditation from the Dept. of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Unfortunately, the NPRM is saddled with some baggage that will likely constrain the timeliness of its implementation. For example, individual state driver licensing agencies would be required to review the “completion certificate” for every applicant. Once the certificate data has been reviewed and verified, the agency would have to retain a copy and/or image of the certificate as part of its recordkeeping system. While that requirement sounds fairly simple, it presents an enormous task for states.

First, their databases will have to be modified to include the new information. Given that many states use “legacy” mainframe computer systems, and that each table contains millions of data rows, this requirement will present them with significant IT challenges.

Second, the new data elements will no doubt have to be transferred and uploaded to national databases, requiring standardization among state agencies. Third, some states will have to pass legislation to authorize this recordkeeping process.

Thus, FMCSA is proposing a three-year phase-in period from the final rule effective date.

Let's be optimistic and assume the rule becomes final on January 1, 2009. Allowing for a three-year phase-in period, January 1, 2012, would be the first date entry-level CDL applicants would need training certification. Given that this rulemaking was mandated by a Congressional directive back in 1991, the process will have taken 20 years from vision to implementation.

I urge you to take a more proactive approach. First, ensure that your minimum driver hiring standards include experience and training elements that are “appropriate to the exposure.” For example, complex operations and/or equipment should require a corresponding complexity of experience and training requirements.

Should your operation require new-to-the-industry skills and knowledge (e.g., specialized merchandise delivery and sales), I would urge you to form an alliance with an accredited training organization. Surely, either course will better prepare you for the eventual implementation of this rulemaking proposal.

Jim York is the ass't. vice president of technical services for Zurich Services Corp. Risk Engineering in Schaumburg, IL.