COVID-19 threatens driver training, supply

The shutdown of state driver licensing agencies (SDLAs) in response to the coronavirus crisis is choking off the pipeline of new drivers for both emergency transportation and for the country’s longer-term economic recovery, according to the Commercial Vehicle Training Association (CVTA).

Guidance released last week by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) declaring transportation workers part of the critical workforce in the COVID-19 response included those “who support necessary credentialing, vetting and licensing operations for transportation workers.” That wording should not leave any question, according to CVTA, that state and county agencies issuing commercial learner’s permits (CLPs) and commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs) are part of that workforce.

But even though the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has urged governors to keep SDLAs open, the agency can’t compel them to do so because the guidelines do not have the force of law, CVTA President Don Lefeve told FreightWaves.

“So we have 22 out of 50 states that have closed their SDLAs and another five to 10 that could be added soon. If that trend continues, what are we going to do if we’re not producing drivers? We’re really impacting the ability to respond to the current crisis as well as to unlock the economy once this crisis ends.” CVTA estimated that each month that SDLAs remain closed, the industry is keeping 25,000 to 45,000 new drivers from entering the profession.

A DHS spokesperson confirmed “that while this guidance is not a federal mandate, and final decisions remain at the state and local levels, we firmly believe it can serve as a baseline for a common national approach in prioritizing essential services and workers.”

During a COVID-19 conference call for stakeholders held by FMCSA on Wednesday, FMCSA Administrator Jim Mullen said that one of the agency’s top priorities is working on CDL testing for those that currently have a CLP but cannot obtain an actual license, according to CVTA’s summary of the call. FMCSA “is currently researching and hopes to have something very soon,” CVTA stated, noting that FMCSA is also working on guidance for agricultural CDLs.

The DMV closure issue has a cumulative effect within the driver permitting system, noted Brad Ball, president of Roadmaster Drivers School, which has driver training schools around the country.

“If a student driver has no permit, they can’t train, and if they can’t train, they can’t graduate and go on to test for their CDL,” Ball said. What Ball and others are recommending is that SDLAs remain available for CDL credentialing, with CLPs issued by appointment only. “If the crisis drags on longer, we could potentially figure out how to do this remotely so they don’t have to be face to face with a motor vehicle representative.”

Ken Armstrong, President and CEO of the Florida Trucking Association, pointed out that the relief provided by the FMCSA on Tuesday for expiring licenses and medical cards is a big help for current drivers but didn’t address potential new drivers.

Armstrong also acknowledged that the unpredictability of the COVID-19 crisis makes solving the problem more difficult.

“If I could snap my fingers and get another 5,000 drivers on the road tomorrow or within the next week or two I would, but to predict whether we’re going to need those drivers in two or three weeks or three months from now is impossible,” Armstrong said. “All jurisdictions, local, state and federal, are struggling with what type of extraordinary measures to take now to solve a problem that they don’t know how long is going to last.”