Last month, I opined in this very space that the White House was missing the bus while essentially extending a bailout to the trucking industry because of the driver shortage. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the feds read my column because on Jan. 4 the U.S. Department of Transportation announced that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) was waiving the so-called “under the hood” skills requirement of the CDL test.
The thinking goes that many school bus drivers are older, and it’s hard if not impossible for some of them to crawl under vehicles and peer into engine compartments to demonstrate their ability to note potential mechanical issues. Allowing states to waive the requirement to know certain school bus engine components could avoid scaring off some new applicants. But here’s the kicker: This change is only temporary, as the waiver was set to expire at the end of March. It also changes nothing else about the CDL skills test for new applicants or the required pretrip inspections. So, what’s the point, you ask?
That’s the precise feedback I received from several industry professionals I spoke to. First of all, FMCSA gave no advanced notice, which gave states little time to implement the waiver if they even want to (maybe they did read my column, after all). Secondly, most people in the industry I spoke to relayed that the real issue is the length of time it is taking new applicants to obtain their CDL. That indicates a disconnect in Washington, D.C., regarding how state agencies work and the issues affecting school bus drivers. Shocking, I know.
One industry insider shared with me that the “under the hood” skills test is about a 5- to 6-minute process that most applicants are at least familiar with. He added that he has never seen an applicant fail the CDL test because of lack of engine compartment knowledge. After all, the written exam includes theory questions on how to check fluids and do light repairs. If an applicant doesn’t know these answers, isn’t the “under the hood” skills test conducted during the behind-the-wheel training a moot point?
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A director of transportation for a California school district, agreed. They said that part of the test isn’t what is keeping people out of a bus or for that matter a truck. It’s getting the new applicants tested to begin with. These two perspectives alone represent at least six decades of experience in the industry.
Instead, these professionals told me that the low pay and the two months or longer that it is taking new applicants to obtain their CDL are the main contributors to the national driver shortage. Meanwhile, FMCSA’s Entry Level Driver Training regulation was set to go into effect this month. (Though there was a rumor at press time that it could be postponed yet again as the Omicron variant further complicates our way of life.)
What is your experience in certifying new drivers? Is the “under the hood” skills requirement hampering your ability to attract and retain staff, especially when they are older? That’s the feedback from some school bus contractors. The National School Transportation Association (NSTA) lobbied FMCSA to allow the waiver, but it prefers to see it made permanent. Curt Macysyn, NTSA’s executive director, told me that FMCSA wanted to temporarily waive the requirement to obtain “analytics” on how states implemented it and what the impact is on the driver shortage. However, at this writing only New Jersey, Oklahoma and Wisconsin took the feds up on it. And with the waiver set to expire on March 31, it’s doubtful other states will sign on. States such as Illinois, New York and Pennsylvania have already passed because they are unable to update their websites in time, Macysyn added.
There is talk about a possible 90-day extension to the waiver even as NSTA pushes for something permanent. But even if neither proceed, all might not be lost. “At least we’re having that dialogue,” Macysyn concluded. “It’s inching along with incremental progress. The key is having the conversation.”
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the February 2022 issue of School Transportation News.
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