While COVID-19 has shined a light on the valuable role truck drivers play in keeping Americans supplied with essentials, the pandemic also created barriers for new drivers to enter the professional driver workforce.
A new federal rule loosens some restrictions to make it easier for new drivers to complete CDL testing. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) also extended waivers that permit current professional drivers to stay on the road if their current license expires and they cannot complete retesting because of pandemic limitations.
New driver testing
The FMCSA announced on Dec. 17 the final rule that will allow states to permit a third-party skills test examiner to administer the commercial driver’s license (CDL) skills test to applicants that the examiner has also provided skills training.
“During the COVID-19 public health emergency, truckers have been American heroes — and the Department is committed to helping our economy by reducing unnecessary barriers for those interested in obtaining jobs in the trucking industry,” said Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao.
Longstanding federal rules prohibited a third-party CDL instructor from administering a skills test to his or her students. The final rule announced on Dec. 17 eliminates that restriction by permitting states to allow the instructor to do both the teaching and the testing. This new rule is designed to alleviate testing delays and eliminate needless inconvenience and expense to the CDL applicant. The rule change would take effect on Feb. 15 and individual states would have to adjust local rules.
The trucking industry faced a growing driver shortage before the COVID-19 pandemic created even more of a bottleneck for new professional drivers to enter the industry. State-mandated social distancing requirements have limited how student truck drivers are taught and tested during much of 2020. That exacerbated the driver shortage issue already fueled by rising insurance rates and more stringent drug testing.
In 2020, the industry saw fewer new drivers graduating from schools, according to David Heller, Truckload Carriers Association’s VP of government affairs. Earlier in December, he said the current industry driver shortage has grown to 80,000 in 2020 — a 30% increase from 2019. The American Trucking Associations projects that number to surpass 100,000 by 2023; it could reach 160,000 by 2028.
This past October, carriers were rejecting 25% of loads, according to Heller, which topped the 12.5% of loads rejected during the industry’s last capacity crunch in 2018. That hot year of 2018 had cooled off in 2019, when carriers were rejecting just 5% of loads, according to TCA.
The growing driver shortage has been the top concern of fleet leaders for four straight years, according to the American Transportation Research Institute’s annual Critical Issues in the Trucking Industry survey. To combat this, the FMCSA has been focusing on reducing regulatory barriers for drivers to enter the industry. In March 2019, the agency authored a final rule streamlining the process and reducing costs to upgrade from a Class B to Class A CDL. This deregulatory action is estimated to save eligible driver trainees and motor carriers $18 million annually.
“This new rule will provide states more flexibility during the ongoing public health emergency to test CDL applicants and allow more drivers to safely enter the industry,” said FMCSA Deputy Administrator Wiley Deck, who is acting head of the administration.
FMCSA extends waivers into 2021
In a pandemic-related move, the FMCSA on Dec. 15 extended its CDL, commercial learning permit (CLP)/Medical Certificates waiver set to expire at the end of the year. According to an FMCSA filing, a valid license extension was needed because of potential backlogs at some state driver’s license agencies (SDLA) across the country. With COVID-19 cases on the rise across the country, the FMCSA anticipates more stay-at-home orders this winter that could cause more economical and logistical disruptions.
The new waiver takes effect Jan. 1, 2021, and expires on Feb. 28, and gives the stage agencies discretion to local extensions. The American Trucking Associations broke down what the waivers mean for various drivers:
For CDL/CLP Drivers:
- Waive until Feb. 28, 2021, the maximum period of CDL validity for CDLs due for renewal on or after March 1, 2020;
- Waive until Feb. 28, 2021, the maximum period of CLP validity for CLPs that are due for renewal on or after March 1, 2020, without requiring the CLP holders to retake the general and endorsement knowledge tests;
- Waive until Feb. 28, 2021, the requirement that CLP holders wait 14 days to take the CDL skills test;
Medical Requirements for CDL/CLP and non-CDL drivers:
- This notice will waive, until Feb. 28, 2021, the requirement that CDL holders, CLP holders, and non-CDL drivers have a medical examination and certification, provided that they have proof of a valid medical certification and any required medical variance issued for 90 days or longer that expired on or after Sept. 1, 2020.
- This notice will also waive the requirement that, to maintain the medical certification status of “certified,” CDL or CLP holders provide the SDLA with an original or copy of a subsequently issued medical examiner’s certificate and any required medical variance, provided that they have proof of a valid medical certification or medical variance that expired on or after Sept. 1, 2020.
For State Driver License Agencies (SDLA):
- This notice waives, until Feb. 28, 2021, the requirement that the SDLA change the CDL or CLP holder’s medical certification status to “not certified” upon the expiration of the medical examiner’s certificate or medical variance, provided that they have proof of a valid medical certification or medical variance that expired on or after Sept. 1, 2020. Additionally, the notice waives certain requirements regarding SDLAs downgrading a driver’s CDL or CLP upon expiration of the medical examiner’s certificate or medical variance, provided the SDLAs have proof of a valid medical certification or medical variance that expired on or after Sept. 1, 2020.