The FMCSA split the difference with NSTA's request, opting for a two year extension rather than five for the "under-the-hood" waiver.  -  Image: FMCSA

The FMCSA split the difference with NSTA's request, opting for a two year extension rather than five for the "under-the-hood" waiver.

Image: FMCSA

It’s not the five years sought by the National School Transportation Association, but the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has approved another extension for the so-called “under-the-hood” waiver for school bus driver’s licenses until November 2024.

This waiver exempts drivers seeking their CDLs from having to take an engine compartment portion of the pre-trip vehicle inspection skills testing. Drivers who earn a CDL with this waiver are restricted to intrastate school bus operations.

In its notice approving the extension, the FMCSA indicated that granting the exemption “is likely to achieve a level of safety equivalent to or greater than the level of safety that would be obtained in the absence of the exemption.”

In Support of the Under-the-Hood Extension

The NSTA, Pennsylvania Department of Education, and other organizations and individuals supported the five-year extension in public comments.

“Commenters who supported the exemption noted that school bus drivers must remain with the children and, therefore, may never leave the bus and check the engine while en route,” according to the Federal Register’s report on the extension. “They noted that most school districts have mechanics, not drivers, perform engine compartment maintenance inspections.”

Supporters also noted that the exemption could attract new drivers, including young mothers and grandparents, thus alleviating the school bus driver shortage and reducing CDL testing delays.

Some Opposed to the Five-Year Extension

The National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) and National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services (NASDPTS) were among those commenting in opposition to this latest extension of the “under-the-hood” waiver.

Wrote NAPT President Rick Grisham: “All things considered, we conclude the prudent course is to err on the side of safety and security. Apart from inspecting engine compartments in school buses with traditional fuels, an added consideration on the safety side is the current transition of the nation’s school bus fleet to electric propulsion, and possible new safety issues to monitor.”

The association also wrote that although NAPT hadn’t received any data to indicate the waiver had any detrimental effect on school bus safety, nor did it seem to have the intended benefit: “namely driver recruitment successes attributed to suspension of the under-the-hood requirement.”

Ronna Weber, NASDPTS executive director, offered respectful disagreement with NSTA’s assertion that “an exemption of the under-the-hood testing requirement will not have any effect on the safety levels of school bus operations.”

In her statement to the FMCSA, Weber wrote: “All school bus drivers must be able to perform pre-trip inspections of school buses and in order to do so, it is imperative that the driver check under the hood of the vehicle. The purpose of the under-the-hood inspection is to give drivers the opportunity to find issues before the bus goes out on the road, such as worn or frayed belts or low fluid levels. Failure to ensure the safety of the vehicle can cause dire consequences on the road and endanger student safety.”

Weber pointed out that under-the-hood components must be taught under the Entry-Level Driver Training (ELDT) requirements, leading NASDPTS leadership to wonder “why a driver should not be tested on information they are required to learn.”

Other concerns raised by NASDPTS include:

  • The intrastate-only requirement. State lines can’t always be easily avoided, such as in small states like Vermont, where school bus drivers may cross borders during home-to-school routes.
  • Potential costs to states to change their current testing processes. Wrote Weber: “Licensing and testing agencies would have to update their systems, all trainers and third-party testers would need to be trained on the waiver, and law enforcement would need to be trained on the additional license. Given the low number of states that have chosen to adopt the waiver and the low number of (CDL) drivers who have chosen to obtain their license via the exemption to date, it is difficult to find it cost-effective for a state to undertake the changes needed to accommodate the waiver.”

In the end, NASDPTS “believes that if a driver is capable of adequately ensuring safety in an emergency, then that same driver is capable of inspecting under the hood of a vehicle,” Weber wrote.

What Comes Next for the Extension

After evaluating all the comments, FMCSA granted a two-year extension rather than the five requested by NSTA.

“The two-year period will allow states time to implement the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administration (AAMVA) recommendations for modernizing the CDL skills testing procedures, which may eliminate the need for the exemption by providing the option for a less burdensome engine compartment component of the test,” stated the Federal Register report.

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