The Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program will involve only pre-approved motor carriers and those 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old drivers holding CDLs as well as qualified driver-mentors. - Photo: Canva

The Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program will involve only pre-approved motor carriers and those 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old drivers holding CDLs as well as qualified driver-mentors.

Photo: Canva

The long and winding road to federally licensing drivers 18-21 years old to operate commercial vehicles in interstate operations has reached another milestone: the nitty-gritty phase of rulemaking.

Trucking stakeholders started lobbying for a law to allow under-21 CDL holders to drive anywhere at least as far back as 2015. At that time, a bipartisan bill was rolled out in the Senate that would have required the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to conduct a pilot study with an eye to authorizing contiguous states to sign compacts to standardize CDL requirements, including for under-21 drivers.

That specific proposal never caught a gear. But it eventually morphed into a push for a graduated licensing program. That idea led to a provision within the recently passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that requires FMCSA to set up an apprenticeship pilot program for CDL holders under the age of 21 to qualify to drive interstate. And unlike a lot of Congressional mandates that gather cobwebs for years before we see any action, the administration has shifted into high gear on this one.

The Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program will involve only pre-approved motor carriers and those 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old drivers holding CDLs as well as qualified driver-mentors. Believe it or not, the pilot is set to kick off in just a few months.

The rulemaking calls for specific probationary periods for these apprentices and for the apprentices to be accompanied in the passenger seat by an experienced driver. And a Registered Apprenticeship program must be set up through the Department of Labor.

The American Trucking Associations and the Truckload Carriers Association, among others, have been full-throated in their support for the rule and its key provisions.

But, as always, the devil lurks in the details. Responding to FMCSA’s latest call for comments on the rulemaking, published in the Federal Register Jan. 7, ATA and TCA weighed in with their concerns about red tape.

While “strongly supporting” the pilot program itself, ATA said FMCSA’s proposed reporting rules for the pilot may be burdensome. These rules “may create unnecessary administrative burdens and/or prevent or delay small- and medium-sized motor carriers from participating in the program, limiting the success of the program, potentially significantly,” stated William Sullivan, ATA’s executive vice president for advocacy.

“Every additional burden placed on motor carriers may reduce the number participating,” he argued. “Our concern is not unwarranted, given that for its similar military pilot program for under-21 drivers, FMCSA leadership acknowledged great difficulty getting enough drivers to participate.”

David Cullen -

David Cullen

TCA said the “breadth of data” to be collected from the program “will present an undue burden to carriers,” in comments submitted by President John Lyboldt. He stressed that the monthly frequency of the reporting required of the carrier and “the vast amounts of data that must be supplied” are daunting.

Lyboldt pointed especially to “the requirement to supply safety event data (as recorded by all safety systems installed on vehicles, to include advanced driver assistance systems, automatic emergency braking systems, onboard monitoring systems, and forward-facing and in-cab video systems),” as very difficult to satisfy, “particularly for smaller carriers that do not have an extensive staff to handle this reporting.”

Despite their issues with the proposed reporting requirements, both ATA and TCA reiterated their support for the overall program.

“While we believe the data collection is too broad and the Registered Apprenticeship mandate may prevent broad participation, ATA and its members will promote the program and looks forward to assisting FMCSA in supporting the program,” Sullivan said.

Likewise, John Lyboldt acknowledged that for FMCSA “to accurately track and monitor the safety performance of these drivers, and to ensure that all of the training procedures are being met, the proposed information collection is necessary.”

This commentary first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Heavy Duty Trucking.

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