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FMCSA caves to truck industry lobby, compromises CDL process and public safety

Written by Steve Gursten Posted April 25th, 2013

The FMCSA has modified or abolished several regulations that helped maintain  safety standards for issuing a Commercial Drivers License to potential truck drivers

As a safety advocate and truck accident attorney, I have seen firsthand how devastating truck crashes involving semis and 18-wheelers can be.  Government has an important role to play in preventing these types of crashes, and this is why the latest move from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is so sad and frustrating for all of us who work to reduce the number of preventable trucking accidents on our roads.

The FMCSA has caved in to pressure from the trucking industry and has loosened up some of the regulations relating to issuing Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDLs).

The current regulations were put in place in 2011.  These regulations set the current standards for obtaining a CDL and established the Commercial Learner’s Permit, which previously did not exist. The agency is making several changes to the regulations following truck industry lobbying efforts. The modifications are largely procedural, yet all have serious safety implications.

These changes include:

1. Two employees no longer have to verify the applications documents.  Previously, two licensing agency employees had to verify the applicant’s documentation.  The FMCSA acknowledged that this was “burdensome.” Under the new changes, two employees no longer have to verify the applications documents.

Whether or not this requirement was indeed burdensome, one cannot possibly believe this is a wise decision. When we are licensing people to drive fully-loaded 80,000 pound trucks, the interest in keeping our highways safe outweighs the “burden” of having two employees verify documents.

The two employee rule was extremely wise.  It is too easy for a company owner or safety manager to put pressure on one employee to look the other way at an unfit driver. Putting pressure on two people to look the other way is much harder and offers an important check and balance. And two eyes are also better than one. After all, all people can make mistakes, even licensing agents. It is wise to have a second set of eyes to make sure the applicant is fit. Perhaps that second agency employee would have caught something that the first employee missed, which would keep a dangerous truck driver off the road.

2. Truckers can do their skills test where they trained. Currently, potential drivers cannot skills-test to obtain a CDL license at the same facility where they were trained. There is an exception stating that if there is no facility within 50 miles, then a truck driver may skills-test at the facility where he was trained.  The FMCSA now says that it is okay for truckers to skills-test at the facility where they trained.

The concern here is the obvious conflict of interest. Any trucking school that fails too many unfit drivers would get crushed to a competing school that enjoys a widely known sky-high graduation rate. Once the school that follows the rules starts to lose a lot of students and money to a school that has much more lax standards, there will likely be no truck driver training school on earth that would dare to fail a borderline unfit trucker who was educated at its own facility. One does not have to be a truck accident attorney to imagine all the obvious public safety ramifications and conflicts of interests here, but the somehow the FMCSA does not see a problem with this?

The only restriction that now remains in place is that the trainer who trained the applicant cannot skills-test him.  That is not a strong protection against abuse.

3. Third-party CDL testers that are governmental entities are no longer required to maintain bonds to cover re-testing of drivers if fraud is uncovered.

4. States can use different photo techniques for CDLs at their discretion. The current rule says that states may not use a digital color image or a black and white laser engraved photo of the driver on the learner’s permit. The FMCSA agreed with the industry lobbyists that this is too restrictive.  Now the States may use these techniques at their discretion.

5. States do not have to conduct background checks on test examiners. Perhaps the most shocking change of all, the FMCSA has now agreed with the trucking industry lobby that it is too burdensome to require states to conduct background checks on all test examiners. Now the checks are required only when the examiner is actually hired.   And sadly, each of the founding members of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable has had too many cases where hiring background checks are never done, or are ignored as trucking companies who want to fill seats look the other way.

This is the bottom line: dangerous truck drivers, and the bad companies that hire them, are out there seriously injuring and killing people.  When lives are hanging in the balance, the public needs all the safety checks possible to make sure bad drivers who cut corners on safety are kept off the highway.  Screening test examiner applicants would deter bad test examiners from even applying at all.  It serves as just another layer of protection for keeping dangerous drivers from obtaining a CDL.

Imagine the chaos if a bad test examiner slipped through the safety filters.  Now we might see bad test examiners licensing bad truckers.

I have seen how these crashes affect and destroy the lives of the victims and their families.  It is certainly surprising that the FMCSA would cave to industry pressure on these simple critical safety checks and balances. This is a sad day for all commercial vehicle safety advocates, and for all of us who travel on the public highways.

These changes took effect this week, on April 24, 2013.

Related information:

Taking a look at Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations

Steven Gursten Photo

About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group. He has been named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. Steve was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case. He has received the top reported truck accident jury verdict and top reported truck accident settlement in Michigan for multiple years, according to published year-end compilations of all jury verdicts and personal injury settlements by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. He has been named a "Top 50 Super Lawyer," by SuperLawyers, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and has been awarded an AV-rating by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating for legal ability and ethics. Steve speaks to lawyers throughout the country on truck accident litigation. He is a founding member of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, head of Michigan Auto Law, and has dedicated his legal career to making our roads safer.
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