Some 25 years in the making, the entry-level driver training proposal just published by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has been widely welcomed by the trucking industry—which shouldn’t come as a surprise, since trucking representatives occupied several seats at the table as the requirements were developed last year. But that doesn't mean the plan is perfect.

Indeed, the main point of contention in the advisory committee’s consensus recommendation remains an issue in the final rule: whether or not the mandated 30 hours of behind-the-wheel instruction is necessary.

The minimum was set by FMCSA’s Entry-Level Driver Training Advisory Committee (ELDTAC), a group of stakeholders representing trucking, drivers, regulatory enforcement, and highway safety advocates, among others.

The panel voted 24-2 in favor of the requirement, a majority sufficient to meet to the consensus threshold for the negotiated rulemaking.

The American Trucking Assns., however, continues to contend that the minimum driving-time requirement is unnecessary, although ATA leaders said they were pleased the proposed rule has been released and that it will “raise standards and improve safety.”

“This rule does a good job of outlining the knowledge and skills a new driver should have before heading out on the road,” said ATA President and CEO Bill Graves, “but ATA is concerned that an arbitrary requirement centered on behind-the-wheel training hours distracts from a more important focus on performance and safety outcomes.”

During the negotiated rulemaking process, ATA repeatedly emphasized that demonstrating the ability to safely operate a commercial vehicle was far more important than the number of hours of instruction or practice a new driver receives. The trucking advocacy group continues to push for the final rule to be “more focused on performance outcomes.”

“Some prospective drivers may demonstrate proficiency before reaching an arbitrary minimum hours requirement, but more concerning is the possibility that achieving this time threshold will erroneously convey competence and possession of the skills needed to safely drive,” Graves said.

But that 30-hour standard is appropriate and in line with current training minimums, explains Don Lafeve, president and CEO of the Commercial Vehicle Training Assn. CVTA, which had a seat on the advisory committee, is the largest trade association representing truck driving schools, students and the businesses that rely on new drivers.

“The proposal pretty much embodies all that we agreed upon,” Lefeve told Fleet Owner. “We all know that training works, and in our experience it takes a driver a minimum of 30 hours for proficiency.”

He also discounts ATA’s concern—and one shared by a number of drivers—that the 30-hour requirement might be misconstrued as sufficient proof of driving skill in itself. Lefeve notes that the curricula at member schools includes 40 hours of BTW training, and he adds that trucking companies—a number of which are key supporters of CVTA and its member schools—will continue to operate “finishing schools” for drivers.

“Carriers spend a great deal of time and money to improve their safety, so I disagree that 30 hours will mean a new driver is ready when he’s hired,” Lefeve said.

The standard will be especially important in weeding out “CDL mills” and holding driving schools accountable, he points out. And the rule does require proficiency, regardless of the BTW training time—and again, this is already required at reputable schools.

“When it comes down to it, it’s about safety and our instructors take that very seriously,” Lefeve said. “In our opinion, this regulation’s important because it maximizes safety and will produce safer drivers in the future.”

Lefeve now expects FMCSA to begin to develop data on the effectiveness of training programs. More broadly, he’s also hopeful the successful negotiated rulemaking format will lead to its regular use in the future.

“This driver rule has been in the works for 25 years. FMCSA really did learn a lot about bringing together diverse stakeholders, and working through some of these issues,” Lefeve said. “There’s a lot of nuance that a lay person or an opposing group wouldn’t pick up or appreciate. So by sitting down and talking, you can walk through your opinion and let the other side understand—and then forge a consensus.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn., which also had a representative on the advisory committee, has long placed driver training standards near the top of its policy priorities.

“We are still reviewing the rule and will likely have some questions for clarification on some provisions,” OOIDA Executive Vice President Todd Spencer said. “In general, we view the proposal positively and are encouraged to see the agency continue to make strides toward a final, solid rule.”

Likewise, the National Association of Small Trucking Companies (NASTC) had a seat on the committee, and NASTC President David Owen noted the plan closely follows the advisory board’s recommendations. Though he’s still reviewing the notice, Owen suggested that unless the new training requirement greatly reduces the number of job-seekers coming into the industry, his small, truckload fleet members will not be affected.

“We were pleased to be on the advisory committee to protect the interests of small carriers, but my guys can only hire drivers with three to five years’ experience, because insurance companies won’t let us hire drivers with less,” Owen said. “Primarily, post-CDL training is a big company duty.”