Being a truck driver was already a difficult and hazardous job in recent years. Transportation fatality statistics indicate that driving is by far the most dangerous profession in the US. And the pandemic has only made that worse.
With people shifting their lives indoors, the demand for online shopping to fulfill everyday needs has increased. For all the hype around self-driving vehicles, goods still don’t get to your doorstep without the help of a truck driver.
Truck drivers are certainly deserving of their status as essential workers. And in recognition of the increased strain they face on the job, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has made changes to commercial driver’s license (CDL) testing regulations.
In spirit, these changes are intended to make the lives of truck drivers easier during this pandemic. But in practice, they may also increase the burden of risk for fleet owners and fellow motorists.
The new rules
What are the changes FMCSA has made, and why are they relevant now?
First, new drivers will find it easier to get into the industry. Previously, regulations had forbidden CDL instructors from testing their students to ensure impartiality and fairness.
The trucking industry already faced a bottleneck before the pandemic, and the shortage of drivers has grown since then. Carriers have been rejecting up to 25% of loads as of October 2020.
According to the revisions, states may now allow a third-party examiner to administer the CDL test to their own driving students. This move is designed to encourage entry into the profession by removing barriers caused by testing delays, inconvenience, and expense on the applicant’s part.
Second, holders of expired CDLs and medical certifications benefit from a waiver extension, with states given the discretion to continue this indefinitely.
Given the unique circumstances of the pandemic, the FMCSA recognizes how difficult it is for drivers to renew their licenses or certifications and for licensing institutions to clear backlogs. The waiver extensions have, in fact, been rolled out and renewed periodically since early 2020.
Clearly, these regulatory changes were made with the big picture in mind. The FMCSA had to account for the fact that, facing the current emergency, the American public is now more reliant than ever on efficient and seamless mass transportation of goods.
But the flip side of this loosening of restrictions means making it easier for potentially under-qualified applicants to enter a dangerous profession.
A passenger vehicle may weigh an average of four to five thousand pounds. A big-rig truck, on the other hand, can weigh 80,000 pounds. Physics dictates that such a difference in mass means you have little margin for error.
A collision at speeds that might result in a minor mishap or damage for light vehicles can easily prove fatal when a heavier truck is involved.
Lawyers who handle 18-wheeler accident cases can tell you that as a consequence, liability is premised on negligence. It’s never as simple as assigning all the blame to the driver. They are often incentivized to make it within tight delivery times and may not have adequate rest or breaks.
Workers whose job it is to load cargo, or inspect and maintain the vehicle, may also be at fault. Ultimately, accountability can be traced all the way back to the fleet owner or vehicle manufacturer.
A call for vigilance
Again, it’s difficult to assume that the FMCSA was unaware of these potential risks. But in the light of our public health crisis, it may have deemed these measures necessary for the greater good.
It’s unfortunate, but the burden of addressing the potential safety problems now shifts to various stakeholders.
CDL instructors cannot allow their familiarity with a student to affect their examinations. Knowing that any subsequent incidents may lead an investigation back to them for potential bias or conflict of interest, they must remain impartial. It’s still in their best interest to deliver a fair assessment of the student’s driving capabilities.
Regulations might increase the number of drivers available, but many of these people might lack the intangible experience and skills for exhausting long-haul trips. Fleet owners and truck driver agencies must go the extra mile to not only vet their personnel but ensure they receive proper safety training and adequate rest.
And the American public must also step up their efforts to observe every safety precaution when on the road. Even during this pandemic, with more citizens staying at home, we share the roads with truck drivers who are under pressure in a job that’s seen restrictions loosened.
If they have little room for error, perhaps we, as fellow motorists, can give them some by being safer drivers ourselves.