Legislation: "CDL" May Spell Truck Driver Trouble

When "Ernesto G." applied for a driver's position with a waste collection company, he provided a certificate from a truck-driving school and showed his commercial driver's license.

However, the 29-year-old concedes he's not really qualified to drive a transfer trailer.

"I couldn't do the maneuvers," he admits. "I almost crushed a car carrying four passengers." Frankly, he is stunned by having graduated from the commercial driver school.

Amazement also may describe the reaction of the American public if it knew how easy it is these days to become a truck driver. Overall, a shortage of truckers has driven down licensing standards for would-be drivers. At the same time, the number of commercial driving schools - unregulated for the most part - has grown.

These schools, which usually give the commercial driver's license (CDL) exam to their own students, are contributing to a potential safety problem on the highways, say critics. "The current state of inadequately trained drivers is a safety hazard," says Lana Batts, president of the Truckload Carriers Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group.

Surprisingly, trucker hopefuls don't need a passenger car driver's license before applying for a CDL. In fact, the failure rate on the CDL exam is much lower than on the automobile driver's exam. Almost 95 percent of would-be truckers pass the CDL exam, according to a 1996 survey of 18,000 students in 33 training schools.

By comparison, the passing rate on the passenger car exam ranged from 46 percent in Washington State to 86 percent in Illinois.

Too many truck driver applicants pass the test, experts say. Indeed, the high pass rate "will reduce the amount of safety we have on the highway," says Ed Kynaston, a retired highway safety administrator who served as an advisor to the Federal Highway Administration.

The low failure rate among truckers can be explained by pressure on driver training schools to produce more graduates. Few trainees actually pay their own tuition. Employers and trucking firms pay for some 40,000 students each year. However, the students must first pass the course and be otherwise acceptable for a job.

Consequently, the students learn "to pass a test, not to be truck drivers," says Michael Calvin, senior director of drivers services for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, Arlington, Va.

For their part, the commercial drivers schools stand by their record. "Sure, we do have some schools that could use some improvements," says Van O'Neal, president of the Houston-based Association of Publicly Funded Truck Driving Schools. "Our students pass the exam because we've trained them so diligently," he adds.

Meanwhile, government data shows a 35 percent decline in the rate of fatal accidents involving large trucks between 1986 and 1996. But critics say the statistics only reflect improved roads and better equipment.

Each year, about 300,000 new truck drivers receive a CDL. Training for the exam occurs at 500 schools - public and private, some federally sanctioned - as well as at storefront facilities or backyard set-ups.

The courses can last anywhere from two days to several months. A typical course can be finished in less than a month. The programs are not regulated by state or federal authorities.

The CDL exam consists of a driving test and a written or oral exam on rules of the road. Although state motor vehicle officials are responsible for the road regulations test, at least half the states allow employers and training schools to administer the driving skills test to their own students.

The Federal Highway Administration is experimenting with a program this year in six states where third parties will be allowed to give the road rules exam as well.

Before 1986, commercial vehicle license exams varied from state to state. However, in 1986 in an effort to standardize trucker qualifications, the U.S. Department of Transportation's (DOT) Office of Motor Carriers created the CDL exam.

In 1992, the federal government limited its funding to trucker-training schools that offered at least 600 hours of instruction.

As a result, the shorter programs and the smaller schools shut down. Springing up to take their place were privately-funded training schools known as "CDL mills."

Responding to the growing concern about driver competence, the Professional Truck Driver Institute of America has created tougher, new training standards, including emphasis on fatigue management and many hours of on-the-road, behind-the-wheel training for each student. The standards are gaining acceptance among schools.

In addition, DOT officials are considering the creation of a commercial license category akin to a learner's permit and a "graduated" license. The permit would, for example, restrict solo or night driving by new licensees.

Award Community Waste Disposal Inc., Dallas, has been awarded the 1997 "Keep Dallas Beautiful Environmental Excellence Award" for business recycling and solid waste reduction.

Agreement Jacobs Vehicle Systems, Bloomfield, Conn., and Navistar International, Chicago, have entered into an agreement where Navistar will be the exclusive distributor of Jacobs Exhaust Brakes for all Navistar International medium-duty diesel engines.

Contract Zarn Inc., Reidsville, N.C., has announced the sale of more than 9,700 waste and recycling carts to Health Sanitation Service, Santa Maria, Calif.