Proposed Highway Safety Rule Gets Tough on Commercial Drivers

Offenses such as drunken driving, leaving the scene of an accident and excessive speeding — even if committed during off-duty hours — could cost a commercial truck driver his job.

A proposed U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), Washington, D.C., rule would require states to suspend or revoke a driver's commercial license for traffic violations committed in any vehicle.

Currently, the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 (CMVSA) lists eight offenses for which a commercial driver could be disqualified, including reckless driving, mistakes leading to fatal accidents and using a commercial vehicle to commit a felony. The new rule, which complies with the U.S. Congress' Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999, applies the 1986 CMVSA standards to violations committed in any vehicle.

“The FMCSA believes that a record of convictions for serious traffic violations and other offenses while operating a non-commercial motor vehicle is just as important as a conviction in a commercial motor vehicle in determining whether a driver should retain his or her [commercial driver's license (CDL)],” the proposed rule states.

While trucking industry associations and drivers' representatives do not oppose the new rule, some believe that it is “feel-good legislation.”

“From our perspective, it's a lot of regulatory overkill,” says Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operators and Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), Grain Valley, Mo. “I am unaware of any state that does not already suspend or disqualify commercial drivers for these convictions. It wouldn't make any difference what they drove.”

But the FMCSA's David Longo says the issue is more complicated. “What happens in real life is that the driver will say to the judge, ‘you will be taking away my livelihood if you revoke my CDL.’” Then the judge may decide to substitute a driving course or a probation period for a suspension, thus masking the violation on the driver's record.

The new rule, Longo says, would eliminate such loopholes. “This is going to require states to do something,” he adds. Under the proposed rule, “the conviction must show up on a driver's commercial license, and the states are compelled to create a mechanism within their databases to allow for the transfer.”

Despite such mandates, the new rule presents logistical problems, according to Elisa Braver, senior epidemiologist for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Arlington, Va. “You have to be very aware of the limitations of driver records,” she says. “For example, if someone is convicted of a violation in a state other than the state in which he or she is licensed, then there could be problems. It's a constant struggle to have accurate driver records.”

Different states do not necessarily code violations in the same ways, says OOIDA's Spencer. “A parking ticket in one state can be a moving violation in another. It's frustrating, particularly for truckers,” who constantly are crossing state lines.

Additionally, long-haul truck drivers do not receive equal protection under the current traffic court system, Spencer says. “A truck driver might be 1,500 miles away on his or her court date. The people who write the tickets know that out-of-town drivers most likely will not make the court date.”

By raising the stakes of traffic violations, however, the new rule could encourage truck drivers to forego business trips to be in court. “When the penalties get so significant, you have to be there,” Spencer says.

Nevertheless, Spencer says he wonders whether safety rules targeting only commercial truck drivers are missing part of the picture. “The vast majority of accidents where trucks are involved actually are caused by someone driving an automobile,” he says.

The statistics on large-truck crashes prove that commercial truck drivers should be required to drive more safely than most drivers, Braver says. “In two-vehicle crashes involving a large truck and a passenger vehicle, 98 percent of deaths occur to passenger vehicle occupants,” she says.

Braver says she is not aware of studies that compare a driver's off-duty driving performance to commercial driving performance, but she notes that drivers with a history of traffic citations are at a higher risk for future citations and crashes. But “the majority of crashes involve drivers who have had no citations or police-reported crashes in the previous three years,” she adds.

Statisticians at the FMCSA predict that the new rule, if approved, would prevent at least 500 truck-related accidents per year. Public comments on the proposed rule are due by Aug. 2, 2001, and the FMCSA's Longo says a final rule could be published later this year.