On Thursday, the Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, testified at a Senate budget hearing and asked about what the DOT is or isn’t doing on a lot of hot issues.
While the hazardous train derailment was on everybody’s minds, what can the trucking industry learn from the Senate hearing?
First, Senator of Mississippi, Cindy Hyde-Smith, stressed the seriousness of the driver shortage.
According to the American Trucking Associations, the driver shortage may exceed 100,000 drivers by 2023 based on projected freight growth, industry retirements, and competition from other industries.
She mentioned that in February, the FMCSA provided the transportation committee staff with the latest participation data on the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program.
What did Secretary Buttigieg say about the pilot program?
For her constituents in Mississippi, Senator Hyde-Smith noted 18–20-year-olds can drive commercial loads all across the state of Mississippi but not one mile further across the border to Memphis, TN.
Currently, 49 states and Washington DC give commercial driver licenses to people under 21 to drive commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) intrastate, but they cannot cross state lines.
The three-year pilot program was included in the infrastructure law and based on the drive safe act that she co-sponsored.
This new rigorous apprenticeship program is intended to take some of the best young CDL drivers and train them so they can cross state lines.
The pilot program is intended to accommodate 1,000 carriers and 3,000 apprenticeship drivers over three years.
Before an approved motor carrier can allow an apprentice to operate under the Pilot Program, FMCSA reviews the driver’s safety performance history against its systems and will issue an exemption for each young driver.
However, after half a year, only 4 drivers are in the program and 22 carriers approved for the program since the summer of 2022 when they could first apply.
Senator Hyde-Smith asked what DOT and FMCSA is doing to encourage participation.
Secretary Buttigieg said as of Thursday, an additional 22 carriers are approved and “just working through the rest of the process before they can begin.” That is just 44 carriers out of 1,000 available for the program.
So far, there is no way this pilot program can collect important data on young safe driver education for long haul driving.
So, what steps did Buttigieg say is being done to see higher participation?
- DOT is making information available for 1,500 carriers who meet safety requirements for the pilot program (which was sent a few weeks ago)
- DOT started a Paid media video campaign in February, and
- A social media and outreach campaign was used to reach the high school graduating class of 2023
These campaigns sound like they are trying to establish that trucking is a career these graduating students should look into, but they do not already have a CDL or commercial learner’s permit.
Unfortunately, these campaigns take time to see results before these teens qualify for the pilot program as they have to:
- stir interest in a trucking career,
- encourage them to get their commercial learner’s permit,
- then get their state-issued CDL, and
- keep their intrastate safe driving history up
On Feb 22, one approved carrier, Pitt Ohio, noticed this problem as well and requested an exemption to ease the requirements from 18-20 year-olds with a CDL to just having a commercial learner’s permit to driver interstate commercially.
These CLP holders would still need to meet all the remaining apprentice requirements, as well as the existing regulatory requirements for CLP holders, specifically that there must always be a trainer in the cab during the training and interstate driving.
If granted, Pitt Ohio estimates that 25 CLP holders would operate under the exemption each year. The comment period just ended and we will see what the FMCSA decides, but Buttigieg stressed safety is key to the pilot program.
He said this after Senator Hyde-Smith stressed that the major deterrent for carriers to join the program is inward facing cameras and other strict rules, which costs extra money or offer privacy concerns. She asked if the program can lessen these requirements.
Buttigieg said any requirement in the program is for safety.
So, it sounds like he does not want to reduce any safety requirements for the pilot program yet.
What are the SDAP program requirements?
With that said, let’s run down what the requirements are for these young drivers in the pilot program.
Young professional drivers must complete at least 400 hours of on-duty time and 240 hours of driving time:
- accompanied by an experienced driver
- in an automatic or automatic manual transmission truck
- with automatic emergency braking
- forward-facing video cameras, and
- top speed limited to 65 miles per hour
The young drivers in the program are also not allowed to drive trucks with more than one trailer or carry hazardous materials.
After that, until they turn 21, they will be able to drive by themselves but under continuous monitoring by trucking companies, including monthly safety performance reports filed with FMCSA.
Motor carriers interested in participating must complete an application for participation and submit monthly data on:
- an apprentice’s driver activity (vehicle miles traveled, duty hours, driving hours, off-duty time or breaks)
- safety outcomes (crashes, violations, and safety-critical events), and
- any additional supporting information (onboard monitoring systems or investigative reports from previous crashes)
In addition, carriers will be required to notify FMCSA within 24 hours of:
- any injury or fatal crash involving an apprentice
- an apprentice receiving an alcohol-related citation in any vehicle
- an apprentice choosing to leave the pilot program
- an apprentice leaving the carrier, or
- an apprentice failing a random or post-crash drug and alcohol test
Can these drivers find a good job after they turn 21?
A recent research survey by ATRI was designed to understand what barriers there are for fleets to participate in the pilot program.
The report says that “while many in the industry support the expansion of interstate commercial driving for individuals under the age of 21, many carriers are not yet prepared to hire younger drivers.”
This is because “Increased insurance costs represent a significant barrier to eventually hiring younger drivers.” The report found that half of small fleets and 30% of large fleets cited this as a significant factor in their decision.
The widely held belief that commercial drivers under the age of 25 cannot be insured is a myth, but it will be expensive.
In most cases, self-insured mega fleets will be the one hiring these young drivers since they can afford this driver risk.
If you plan to go through this program, and you eventually want to start your own trucking business, we recommend driving safely to age 23 before starting your company. Make sure you save up $100,000 to prepare for 6 months of your new business.
[Learn more about planning, starting, and succeeding as an owner operator]
If you are a carrier looking to hire younger drivers, or be a part of the pilot program, know that younger drivers want greater transparency and suggest making job postings more explicit about expectations or requirements and posting “day in the life” videos or other content to help convey a sense of what a job in trucking is like.
Can we fix the truck parking crisis?
We all know that safe truck parking is a huge issue right now across the country.
So, what did Secretary Buttigieg say the DOT is doing about truck parking at the Senate hearing?
Senator Boozman started off this discussion mentioning that for every 11 drivers there is only 1 truck parking space and that drivers will drive for an hour to an hour and a half before their hours run out trying to find a spot.
He asked Secretary Buttigieg how congress can help them solve this problem.
Before we see what Buttigieg said, let’s dive further into the truck parking problem.
A new survey from CloudTrucks revealed Americans’ attitudes toward professional truck drivers, showing that while most think drivers are overworked and underpaid, they’re unaware of the truck parking crisis.
According to OOIDA, there is a nationwide shortage of more than 40,000 parking spaces. The CloudTrucks’ survey showed that 56% didn’t know truck drivers faced such a parking shortage.
Secretary Buttigieg stressed that truck parking is more than just a need for convenience but also needed for driver safety.
He said the funding they do have from DOT’s Infrastructure for Rebuilding America (INFRA) is being used to fund Florida and Tennessee truck parking programs.
The infrastructure law that Biden enacted last year increased the INFRA program by more than 50%. The law provides approximately $8 billion for INFRA grants over the next five years.
What Secretary Buttigieg is referring to is a new $15 million project on I-4 between Tampa and Orlando, Florida, creating about 120 parking spaces and a $22.6 million expansion project on I-40 east of Nashville, Tennessee, that adds about 125 truck spaces as well as upgrading the adjacent bridge structures on I-40 over the Caney Fork River.
Buttigieg added that there is also emerging technology to help show drivers in real time where truck spaces are available.
For example, the facility in Florida will be connected to the Florida Department of Transportation’s Truck Parking Availability System, which helps drivers identify available parking locations.
This Florida project also includes electric charging stations and pedestrian infrastructure to access nearby commercial amenities the truck spaces will include at least six electrical hookups to provide stand-by power for refrigerated trucks and auxiliary power for in-cab comforts. Nice!
Another project from a different program granted $110 million for the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market intermodal facility in the Bronx.
“The project will boost the economy by improving one of the largest food distribution centers in the country by widening and separating vehicle, truck, rail and pedestrian circulation and clearly establishing and expanding truck queuing and parking areas within the facility.”
Secondly, Buttigieg is urging state DOTs to use highway formula funds for additional parking programs.
And third, if needed, working with Congress to further help alleviate this issue.
This is all very interesting, and we will see how far the funding programs go and what else Congress may do to push for safe truck parking across the country.
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