Behind the wheel with owner-operator Brita Nowak on February 5th 2022.
Andrew Hetherington for TIME
February 7, 2022 12:48 PM EST

In most states, aspiring barbers have to spend 1,000 hours or more in training before they get a license. To drive a 40,000-pound truck, though, there’s no minimum behind-the-wheel driving time required, no proof of ability to navigate through mountains, snow, or rain.

There’s just a medical exam, a multiple-choice written exam, and a brief driving test—which in some states can be administered by the school that drivers paid to train them.

As trucking companies hustle to hire more drivers in response to supply chain issues, though, the roads could be getting more dangerous—and there were 4,895 people killed in crashes involving large trucks in 2020, 33% more than in the 3,686 fatalities in 2010. In the coming months, the minimum age to be licensed to drive commercial trucks interstate will drop from 21 to 18 for thousands of drivers as part of a pilot program announced by the Biden administration. And on Feb. 7, standards for driver training that have been in the works for three decades were set to finally go into effect, but they don’t include a critical component: a minimum number of hours of behind-the-wheel training.

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“We don’t want to do the hard things in this industry, which is spending extra money, taking extra time to train people to safely operate trucks,” says Lewie Pugh, who owned and operated a truck for 22 years and is now executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Assn. His association has long pushed for higher training standards, which they say would help the high-turnover industry retain workers.

The ramifications of sending inexperienced drivers on the road are evident in the fiery crashes along the nation’s highways that kill people in smaller vehicles and tie up traffic for hours. In April 2019, four people were killed in Colorado when Rogel Aguilera-Mederos, who had little experience driving on mountainous terrain, lost control of his truck.

Aguilera-Mederos, who was 23 at the time, had earned his commercial driver’s license in Texas and was heading to Wyoming when his brakes failed coming down a mountain on I-70. Aguilera-Mederos was sentenced to 110 years in prison for vehicular manslaughter, later reduced to 10 years by the Colorado governor. But the responsibility shouldn’t only lie on the driver’s shoulders, argues his lawyer, James Colgan. “My client never received any formal training in mountain passes and how to deal with them,” Colgan told me. The trucking company “let this inexperienced driver take a mountain pass—they actually encouraged it.”

 

Workers clear debris from Interstate 70 on April 26, 2019, in Lakewood, Colo., following a deadly pileup involving a semi-truck hauling lumber. The truck driver who was convicted of causing the fiery pileup that killed four people said he had no experience navigating mountain roads; his 110-year sentence was later reduced to 10 years. (David Zalubowski—AP)
Workers clear debris from Interstate 70 on April 26, 2019, in Lakewood, Colo., following a deadly pileup involving a semi-truck hauling lumber. The truck driver who was convicted of causing the fiery pileup that killed four people said he had no experience navigating mountain roads; his 110-year sentence was later reduced to 10 years.
David Zalubowski—AP

The trucking company that hired Aguilera-Mederos, Castellano 03 Trucking LLC, has since gone out of business and was not held accountable in the case. Aguilera-Mederos had only earned his commercial driver’s license 11 months before the crash, and his regular driver’s license two years before that, according to court transcripts. He had been working for Castellano 03 Trucking for three weeks when he found himself barreling down a mountain at 80 m.p.h. with a 75,000-pound load and no brakes. “I held the steering wheel tight and that’s when I thought I was going to die,” he told investigators.

Why There Aren’t Training Rules Now

Concerned with a high level of truck driver crashes, Congress in 1991 ordered the Federal Highway Administration to create training requirements for new drivers of commercial vehicles. Highway safety advocates sued after no requirements had been created by 2002, but after a number of court cases, there were still no driving training requirements by 2012, when MAP-21, a law passed by Congress, mandated new standards..

In 2014, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration—the FHA’s successor agency— brought together a committee to negotiate guidance for minimum training requirements. The panel came up with a long list of recommendations, including at least 30 hours training behind the wheel and some amount of time driving on a public road.

The behind-the-wheel rules were a stipulation that only two members of the 25-member committee opposed. Both represented lobbying groups for the trucking industry, which argued that there was no scientific evidence showing that behind-the-wheel training led to safer drivers, says Peter Kurdock, general counsel for the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, who was on the committee. One major carrier, Schneider, which supported minimum behind-the-wheel training , said it “often” encountered newly-licensed drivers who had never operated a commercial motor vehicle on a highway or interstate.

But when the final rules were released in 2016, a minimum number of behind-the-wheel hours had been dropped. The agency said it was not able to find data that proved the value of such training and that it was important to avoid imposing extra training costs on proficient drivers. (In the same document, the agency acknowledged that 38% of commercial motor vehicle drivers said they did not receive adequate entry-level training to safely drive a truck under all road and weather conditions, according to a 2015 survey from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.)

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“That is some of the most invaluable experience that a new truck driver learns—sitting behind the wheel with someone who is an experienced driver saying, ‘This is about to happen. This is how you avoid this critical safety situation,’” Kurdock says. “We feel it’s a significant failing of the rule.”

People seeing a commercial pilot’s license, by contrast, have to have at least 250 hours of flight time; if they want to work for passenger airlines, they have to have 1,500 hours of flight time.

The advisory committee’s recommendations, originally scheduled to take effect in 2020, were delayed and now are due to begin Feb. 7, 2022. They create a training-provider registry and require would-be drivers to sign up with a school that is on the registry. But to be listed on the registry, schools are allowed to self-certify that they qualify. “What’s actually changing?” the American Trucking Association asks, on a section of its website devoted to the new regulations. “For organizations that have a structured program in place today, the truth is – not much.”

Colgan, the lawyer, says more stringent training would skewer the economics of trucking, which ensures that the company that can charge the cheapest rates often gets the business. “It comes down to the almighty dollar—if you required truckers to be trained like that, it would slow everything down,” he says. The American Trucking Assn. did not return calls requesting comment for this story.

If anything, there’s a push to speed things up in the trucking industry as supply chain issues create demand for more drivers to haul more stuff. On Feb. 2, the FMCSA said it would allow trucking schools in all states to administer the written portion of CDL tests for drivers, in addition to the driving test, a reversal of previous guidance, which could get new drivers on the roads faster. In November 2021, 11 Republican Senators asked the FMCSA to let 18-year-olds obtain commercial driver licenses for interstate trucking. “Inaction to grow America’s pool of truck drivers threatens to drive up shipping expenses, prolong delays, and burden already-strained consumers with additional costs,” they said in a letter.

Trucks outside Atlanta GA on February 5th 2022. (Andrew Hetherington for TIME)
Trucks outside Atlanta GA on February 5th 2022.
Andrew Hetherington for TIME

Partly in response to that letter, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed by President Biden in November 2021 ordered the Secretary of Transportation to create a pilot apprenticeship program for 18-to-20 year-olds within 60 days.

“Segments of the trucking industry have been pushing for teenage truckers to drive interstate for years, but the most recent supply chain challenges are being used as a way to push forward that proposal,” Cathy Chase, the president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told me.

How A Trucker Learns

The problems with training aren’t just about a lack of standards. The first year that people spend driving a truck usually consists of long weeks on the road making low wages, a far cry from the six-figure salary and independent lifestyle pitched to new students.

Many drivers who get their commercial driver’s license (CDL) drop out once they get a taste of that life. Over the course of four years, only 20% of the 25,796 drivers who started with CRST, a carrier that promised free training and a job afterward, actually finished the training and started driving independently, according to a class-action lawsuit filed in Massachusetts over the company’s debt collection practices. (CRST agreed to pay $12.5 million to settle the lawsuit, but a former CRST driver has objected to the settlement and is still pursuing claims against the company.)

“What our current system of training does is it throws people into the deep end with no support into the absolute worst and toughest and most dangerous jobs and just burns them out,” says Steve Viscelli, a sociologist and the author of The Big Rig: Trucking and the Decline of the American Dream.

Because new drivers are so expensive to insure, most get trained at big, long-haul trucking companies that are self-insured. These companies recruit would-be drivers by offering to pay for them to get their CDLs in exchange for a promise to work for the company once they’re licensed.

Obtaining a CDL takes a few weeks. Only after that do most newly licensed drivers spend significant time on the road, when they’re paired with more experienced drivers who are supposed to show them the ropes. This saves the companies money, because federal regulations stipulate that truck drivers can only drive 11 hours straight after 10 hours off. Putting two drivers together lets one take the wheel while the other sleeps in the truck and enables companies to move freight in half the time it would take a solo driver. In addition, newly licensed drivers are paid cents per mile to haul the loads, providing a major source of cheap labor.

But the system means that new drivers are spending weeks sharing a truck with a stranger who has the upper hand in their relationship and the power to hurt their job prospects, because the trainer tells the company if the trainee is ready to drive on their own. Often, one person sleeps while the other drives, dimming prospects for the student to actually learn from the trainer, even though the trainer gets a few extra cents per mile to accompany a trainee. Some trainers barely have any more experience than the students.

This is done in tens of thousands of trucks across the country, and horror stories abound.

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Kay Crawford, a 25-year-old who signed up to become a truck driver during the pandemic after getting sick of the low pay and danger of being a sheriff’s deputy, says she was sexually harassed numerous times by her trainers. One kept telling her he needed a woman and propositioned her; another refused to meet her anywhere but her hotel room. The company did nothing once she reported the incidents.

The training coordinator said, ‘I got you work, you’re not accepting it, and I have 14 other students I need to get in a truck,’” she told me. After three separate bad experiences with trainers, Crawford decided to give up on trucking. She’s still hounded by the school, which says she owes it $6,000, despite her sexual harassment claims.

“At that point, trucking pretty much disgusted me,” she said. Despite having her CDL, she can’t get a new job because she’s not insurable without long-haul trucking experience, she said.

Her experience isn’t uncommon. One CRST student alleged that her trainer raped her in the cab of her truck and the company then billed her $9,000 for student driver training; company employees testified that CRST only considered sexual assault claims to be valid if they were corroborated by a third party or recorded. The case, Jane Doe v. CRST, was settled last year and though CRST agreed to pay $5 million, it did not admit wrongdoing.

Despite dozens of legal battles like that one, training has changed little in decades. (There is now a second Jane Doe v. CRST complaint making its way through the courts, filed by another woman who said she was sexually assaulted by her trainer.) Brita Nowak, a longtime truck driver, said that her trainer hit and slapped her when she was learning on the road with a big carrier two decades ago; when she reported him, “they called me a pill,” and asked for proof of her assault, she said. She didn’t have any proof and had to put up with the abuse until her trainer hit an overpass and damaged the truck; then, she says, the company switched her to another trainer.

Owner-operator Brita Nowak outside Atlanta, GA, on February 5th 2022. (Andrew Hetherington for TIME)
Owner-operator Brita Nowak outside Atlanta, GA, on February 5th 2022.
Andrew Hetherington for TIME

Even some people who have good trainers say that they earn less than the minimum wage in their first year of trucking, which makes the sacrifices of being so far from family for long periods of time hard to bear. Crawford said she never made more than $500 a week; even in training, she spent long unpaid hours waiting to load or unload. The Massachusetts lawsuit against CRST alleged that new drivers made between $0 an hour and $7.19 per hour between 2014 and 2015 because CRST deducted money from their paychecks for housing, physical exams, drug tests, and training reimbursement.

“These are bad companies, I wouldn’t send my worst enemy to them,” says Desiree Wood, the founder and president of REAL Women in Trucking, which advocates for better standards for drivers. CRST did not respond to a request for comment.

Hardly a week goes by on her group’s Facebook page without women complaining about trainers who aren’t helping them learn how to drive, or who are creating dangerous conditions for them on the road. One woman, Memory Collins, told me that she was so exhausted from a lack of sleep two days into training that she felt unsafe driving. She pulled off the highway only to find there was no place to safely stop. She woke her sleeping trainer, who helped her get back on the highway, but a week later, the company told her she’d hit a car while trying to turn around and fired her. When she called other companies to try to get hired, she was told she was too much of a liability.

“You have some people who come out of training and know how to drive, others come out of training not prepared, and know they’re not prepared, and just hope they’ll be ok,” says Elaina Stanford, a truck driver who came up training through a big company.

Truck driver training has been turned into a “profit center” for some big companies, says Viscelli, the sociologist. Some people training to become truck drivers get federal workforce development money to pay for their tuition, which saves companies having to cover training costs. Then, the companies pay the newly licensed drivers beginner rates, and when they quit because of the miserable conditions, the cycle is repeated. “They have figured out how to make that inexperienced, unsafe labor profitable,” Viscelli says, of the trucking companies. In 2020, local workforce boards in California invested $11.7 million of federal money on truck driver training schools, five times what they spent the year before.

An effort to improve training

The Biden administration says it is trying to improve training. Its Trucking Action Plan, announced in mid-December, launched a 90-day program that aims to work with carriers to create more registered apprenticeships in trucking. It’s also specifically focusing on recruiting veterans into trucking.

Registered apprenticeships are the gold standard for workforce training and could improve trucker training, says Brent Parton, a senior advisor at the Labor Department overseeing the program. With a registered apprenticeship, would-be truckers get a guarantee that a trucking company will pay for their CDL and for on-the-road training, and that they will commit to certain wage increases over time. These type programs do exist in trucking, mostly set up by unions like the Teamsters who still can guarantee good jobs in trucking. The Teamsters have a program that holds truck driver training on military installations, taking six weeks to help drivers get a CDL and learn to drive on the road. They get union jobs with ABF Freight after they’ve completed the program, making more money than most entry-level drivers.

Owner-operator Brita Nowak outside Atlanta, GA, on February 5th 2022. (Andrew Hetherington for TIME)
Owner-operator Brita Nowak outside Atlanta, GA, on February 5th 2022.
Andrew Hetherington for TIME

But most trucking companies don’t have the time or money to invest in extensive training. The concern among advocates is that the new apprenticeships, including the program to license 18-to-21-year olds to drive interstate commerce, will be akin to slapping a new label on the subpar training that exists. “We’re hoping this isn’t a title for what we’re already doing,” Pugh, of OOIDA said.

The White House says its new program will be different, and that this is the first step in creating trucking jobs that people will want to keep for life. But advocates already have doubts. One of the first companies that signed up to work with the White House on its registered apprenticeships was CRST. In the last two years, it’s agreed to pay out at least $17 million in settlements over lawsuits filed against it for wage theft and incidents that occurred while training people who wanted to become truckers.

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