Bus drivers are our greatest resource. Of that, there’s no doubt. Over the past decade, however, they’ve been forced to jump through a tangle of bureaucratic hoops (CDL, drug and alcohol testing, criminal background checks and, in some states, physical performance tests) to qualify for a job that few “normal people” would accept even if offered to them with a string of pearls.
But I’m glad that the standards are high and the screening is thorough. My granddaughter will soon be riding the bus to school, and I feel more confident about her safety knowing that her bus driver has been rigorously qualified for a position that embraces such tremendous responsibility.
CDL program shakeup
Now the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has proposed revisions to the CDL program (as mandated by the Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999) that would expand the screening process, strengthen the licensing requirements and toughen the sanctions associated with traffic violations.
These are laudable objectives, but they need careful examination. Some of the proposals strike me as peculiar. For example, CDL holders who are caught driving their commercial vehicles without their license would be guilty of a “serious traffic violation," equivalent to driving without having obtained a license. Even odder, the CDL holder can nullify the violation by showing proof of his CDL before the court date. Why, then, make this a serious violation? (For more information on the proposed rulemaking, see news story in this issue).
But I’m getting sidetracked here. What I want to discuss is FMCSA’s proposal to create a school bus driver endorsement as part of its revised CDL program.
This is where it gets tricky.
On the plus side, a school bus endorsement would help to create a more relevant testing program. A chief complaint about the existing CDL process is that it doesn’t measure school bus-specific knowledge and skills. There’s really no practical use in determining whether a prospective school bus driver can back a truck into a loading dock or knows how to lash down cargo properly (no, I’m not referring to children).
The school bus endorsement proposed in the rulemaking would require applicants to pass a knowledge test that includes topics such as passenger loading and unloading, operation of safety equipment like stop arms and mirror systems, emergency evacuation and rail crossing safety. It would also require a skills test in a school bus of the same vehicle group as the applicant would drive on the job.
What we really need
Even more helpful to the school transportation industry, however, would be the development of a school bus-restricted CDL. This idea has been kicked around for several years, if not decades, and some states, like Connecticut, have implemented CDLs that restrict the holder to school bus operation only.
The point, of course, is to discourage people from using the CDL test preparation offered free by most school districts and contractors as a springboard to a higher-paying job as a truck or transit or motorcoach bus driver. It’s not only unethical on the part of the driver applicant; it also drains the school bus operation hundreds of dollars in training costs.
It’s not entirely clear from the proposed rulemaking if the school bus endorsement would achieve this goal. It does not specifically say whether CDL holders who’ve obtained school bus endorsements and want to switch to driving transit buses would have to pass a skills test in a transit bus. Adding such a restriction could help to reduce the number of people trying to “work the system” for free CDL training.