According to the Federal Highway Administration, in 2014, the last full year data is available, 31 million trucks carried 10.5 billion tons of freight more than 279 billion miles overall, nationwide. That is a lot of driving and that is a lot of road sharing with passenger cars. This is very true in Texas, of course; we have all seen how many trucks clog the roads on a given day. Our state is among the top three when it comes to big truck miles driven.
As everyone knows, large commercial trucks, especially tractor-trailers, are humongous vehicles and many carry as much as 40 tons of freight. These trucks potentially disastrous for other vehicles if they are involved in a car crash, in part because of the size difference between them and the smaller vehicles on the road. When an 80,000-pound semi- collides with a 2,000-pound passenger car, the results are usually disastrous.
The fact is, avoiding such accidents is a major priority of safety agencies at the state and federal level. It actually takes a high level of skill to properly guide a large vehicle carrying 40 tons down any road safely, especially at high speeds. That means truck drivers should receive plenty of training. Unfortunately, in recent years, there have arisen major questions as to whether commercial truck drivers receive enough training to keep everyone safe. Given that statistics show that 11 percent of all fatal accidents involve big rigs and that 23 percent of passenger vehicle deaths involve a large truck, this is a potentially serious issue.
The Driver Error Problem
In recent years, there has been a lot of research going on, as those charged with highway safety attempt to reduce the number of truck accidents in Texas and nationwide. That means uncovering the most common causes of such accidents. What much of that research finds is that as many as 90 percent of serious or fatal truck accidents are the result of driver error. That is rarely the only factor; there are often other factors involved, but driver error is usually a contributing factor.
In order to receive a commercial driver’s license, a truck driver is required to receive training from a truck driving school. In most cases, truck driver training programs include such topics as safe operating procedures, map reading, trip planning, and legal compliance. However, many have been expressing concern for years that the training process too often contains shortcuts because the prospective drivers and the trucking companies who are eager to get them on the road as quickly as possible, put a lot of pressure on driving schools to speed things up. Driver training programs only take 4-5 weeks, anyway, questions arise as to the appropriateness of any possible shortcuts.
These questions and concerns are exacerbated when there has been a truck accident, and the nature and extent of the training the potentially negligent truck driver received come under close scrutiny as part of the investigation process. In too many cases, there are questions as to whether the driver satisfied all of the training requirements and is fully competent to drive a 40-ton vehicle down a highway at high speeds. While an accredited truck driving school is supposed to follow the U.S. Department of Transportation Proposed Minimum Standards for Training Tractor-Trailer Drivers, which requires 150 hours of basic semi-truck training, as well as a 150-hour externship and 80 hours of advanced training, too many truck accident investigations, find that the actual truck driver training may have fallen short.
Too often, investigations in the wake of a truck accident in which the rig operator may have caused the accident, the examination of records associated with the training process finds that many training programs lack something that is required by the Department of Transportation Standard. In some other cases, the records associated with a driver’s training are found to have been doctored in a way that presents a more positive picture of the driver’s actual training than was actually the case.
How Good is Driver Training, Really?
Unfortunately, there are signs that we can expect the problem of inadequate training to get worse in the future. Driver training is incredibly important, but if drivers and trucking companies continue to put pressure on schools to speed up the process, the looming driver shortage will probably make matters even worse. According to the American Trucking Association, the trucking industry is already in need of nearly 50,000 truck drivers, with that number set to increase for the foreseeable future. The fact that trucking companies are mass advertising on TV and radio points to their desperation. With fewer people wanting to drive big rigs as a career, the pressure to out drivers on the road faster is likely set to increase.
For its part, U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) recently tightened national prerequisite training standards for entry-level commercial truck and bus operators, in order to obtain a commercial driver’s license (CDL). In making the changes, the FMCSA noted that well-trained drivers are safer drivers and that everyone on the road benefits. However, as well-intended as such a move may be, unless the standards are enforced thoroughly, there will continue to be questions about whether many drivers have been trained adequately.