Federal regulators have been trying for more than 20 years to set training standards for entry-level truck drivers - without success.

Now, under pressure from Congress and the courts, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is trying to reinvigorate the regulatory process by asking its Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee for suggestions on how to get the job done.

The 19-member committee represents the views of industry, the enforcement community, labor and safety advocates. It provides counsel to FMCSA on a variety of issues, including CSA and electronic onboard recorders. It met yesterday in Alexandria, Va., to get up to speed on the training issue.

Not the First Time

Although a driver training standard sounds like a reasonable, straightforward idea, the history of the project shows that it's anything but.

Back in 1991 Congress ordered safety regulators to start work on a training rule, two years later a proposal emerged. That led to a final rule in 2004 that requires new drivers to know basic information about the job, over and above the skills they need to pass the CDL exam.

Advocates for Highway Safety sued, saying that the lack of a requirement for road training is a fatal flaw in the rule. The court agreed and forced the agency to take another look.

That led to a 2007 proposed rule that would require anyone applying for a new or updated CDL to graduate from an accredited program that includes road training as well as class training.

Harder Than it Sounds

That proposal has not become final for several reasons, said Rich Clemente, an agency specialist with expertise in this subject.

The requirement is expensive. It would create the single biggest federal program for training to enter a profession.

The agency does not have the data to show exactly how many drivers would be covered.

And the benefits are only "intuitive," Clemente said. The agency has not found the data to prove that the training requirement would produce quantifiable safety improvements.

Also in question is the scope of the rule. Logically it should cover both intrastate and interstate drivers, but the agency believes it does not have authority to regulate intrastate training.

The agency has a research program under way, looking for answers to the cost-benefit question in its databases.

Meanwhile, it is looking for help on these and other issues from the advisory committee.

The immediate impetus for this initiative is this year's highway law, Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century, which gives the agency a year to come up with a rule.

The committee has until April 2013 to prepare its analysis and suggestions.