Two days ago, trucker training standards that have been in development for decades took effect. And there's already a potentially fatal problem with them.
Training is a hot-button issue in the trucking industry right now. On one hand, highway fatalities are on the rise. There's a 30% increase in fatalities involving large trucks between 2010 and 2020, a difference of more than 1,200 lives. Safety advocates (including us) have pointed toward increasing training for truckers in order to create safer highways and a safer industry.
On the other hand, a supply chain crisis has made trucking companies desperate to get more drivers behind the wheel, which has incentivized training drivers even less than the currently insufficient requirements. Trucking companies have recently won a major victory on this front: for the first time, the minimum age for interstate trucking will drop from 21 years old to 18 years old. Many of these drivers will be held to the new driver training standards that just took effect.
So what's the problem with the new driver training standards? There's no minimum requirement for behind-the-wheel training.
Like Time Magazine pointed out this week, the minimum amount of training to become a licensed barber is 1,000 hours. At a critical moment when drivers need more experience behind the wheel, the trucking industry will be putting people with two years of total driving experience behind the wheel of 40,000-pound behemoths.
Lack of Trucking Experience Kills
Truckers and their family members are familiar with the tragic story of Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, the operator who lost control of his rig on a Colorado mountain pass and killed four people. He was initially saddled with an excessive 110-year sentence, but after protest from other truckers, his sentence was reduced to 10 years. However, what his lawyer argued remains true: the at-fault party here wasn't Rogel, but the trucking company who put him behind the wheel.
Rogel was 23 years old when his brakes failed on that mountain pass. He'd had his CDL for less than a year. “My client never received any formal training in mountain passes and how to deal with them,” his lawyer, James Colgan, told Time. "[The trucking company] let this inexperienced driver take a mountain pass—they actually encouraged it."
It's worth asking: would Rogel have been able to navigate the situation better if he was better trained? If he'd had 2,000 hours behind the wheel navigating different disastrous scenarios? If he'd known exactly how to respond to failed brakes on a downhill incline? We know that pilots have to do exactly that—they practice different deadly scenarios in order to psychologically and physically prepare themselves to respond correctly.
It's not radical to say that if Rogel had proper training, things might have ended differently.
We Have to Hold Companies Accountable for Poor Training
Now, if trucking companies get their way, drivers with even less experience could be getting behind the wheel all over the country, unprepared for the rigors and dangers of operating a truck. While there's no legal minimum for hours behind the wheel, what we can do is make trucking companies pay for every accident caused by negligence or poor training. The more costly it becomes to send out inexperienced drivers, the more likely trucking companies will invest in more hours of behind-the-wheel training.
Until that happens, our trucking lawyers must continue holding trucking companies accountable in court for their negligence.