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May 2014

Compliance with the CDL regulations is a vital goal for all states, and some jurisdictions are already successfully following the rules.

BY Myrna Traylor


In their capacity as rule-makers for the entire nation, the Department of Transportation’s Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has set itself a huge task. It puts forward rules that are designed to help keep interstate traffic safe for all vehicles and their drivers. The regulations covering issuance of commercial driver’s licenses (CDL) are integral to that mission.

In broad strokes, the FMCSA issued a final rule in May 2011 outlining requirements for drivers of vehicles over 26,000 pounds gross vehicular weight (primarily trucks and buses) that travel across state lines.

Since that time, there have been modifications and extensions to certain provisions, but the focus remains on commercial driver’s license qualifications and testing, and commercial learner’s permit (CLP) standards.

Responsibility for administering the CDL rules falls to the motor vehicle administrators in each state. In order to be compliant with the federal CDL regulations, administrators must overhaul—or at least, review—their approach to how commercial drivers are educated, who can grant learner’s permits, how CDL testing is done and how drivers are medically certified to drive. Simultaneously, administrators must make sure that their IT systems can accommodate the necessary database management that is required to streamline reporting and manage carrier, educator and driver information. All that can only happen if the state legislature has passed the relevant legislation to implement the new rules. Clearly, this is no small feat. Jurisdictions like Delaware, Minnesota and Wisconsin are among the many that have been able to successfully comply with at least some of the rules.

Running the Gauntlet

Before the FMCSA issues a regulation, there is a “honeymoon” period, during which private entities (such as carriers, driver educators or labor unions) and state driver licensing authorities—and, by extension, AAMVA—have the opportunity to review the rule’s provisions. A period of notice of proposed rule-making, or NPRM, allows all interested parties to comment on the rule and raise concerns as to its feasibility or any undue hardships it might cause.

AAMVA is a substantial resource for states from the start of the notice period through compliance and beyond. “AAMVA has subject matter experts who can comment and add their expertise,” says Kevin Lewis, director of driver programs at AAMVA. In addition, AAMVA provides forums for discussion among state administrators who can come together to brainstorm and problem-solve as the process moves forward.

The Legislative Challenge

Although some provisions of the CDL rule may require additional cycles of notice, comment and review, eventually that process comes to an end; the FMCSA publishes its final rule and compliance activity begins in earnest. State licensing authorities review the final rule’s provisions and evaluate whether or not the state’s own rules are in conflict with the federal rules, or if there is sufficient funding to implement the programs needed to achieve compliance.

For some states, getting through the legislative process can be difficult. “If you are in a state whose legislature meets once every two years and a rule change is published just after the session has ended, you might miss important deadlines,” says Lewis. But some states work on compliance in these interim periods anyway, with the hope that once any needed legislation is passed, they’ll be able to hit the ground running.

“Typically, you need legislative authority to enact certain provisions,” says Debra Carlson, driver exam program supervisor for the Minnesota Driver and Vehicle Services Division. “And if the state’s legislature isn’t in session, it can put you behind the eight ball, especially if you have no authority [to implement a rule change].” Carlson says that for the rule regarding medical certification, however, the timing of the rule announcement and her team’s ability to get legislation passed worked perfectly. (See “CDL Compliance Case Study: Medical Certification” to read more about jurisdictions that have successfully implemented this rule.)

Working It Out

Of course, even getting to this point in the compliance process requires an incredible amount of effort. Carlson has a CDL steering committee in place in Minnesota to evaluate past issues and review current FMCSA rules. “We look at what is working; what we still have to do in terms of legislation, databases, and business process and policy—everything,” she says.

Kami Lyn Beers, chief of driver services for the Delaware Division of Motor Vehicles, says that her team “jumps immediately onto new initiatives. We get an understanding of the rules and reach out to governmental entities to avoid legislative complications.” For the next item on their punch list, the rule on commercial learner’s permits, Beers’ team is already trying to get legislation passed so they can hit target dates. She admits, though, that “there are certain instances when, if legislation doesn’t pass, we can implement a regulation.”

In Wisconsin, Driver Qualifications Chief Allison Lebwohl cites the synergy and effectiveness of cross-disciplinary working groups that meet once a week to tackle policy and implementation. “We are really fortunate to have a dedicated IT team for licensing,” says Lebwohl. “It makes a huge difference.” She also credits having a strong working relationship with FMCSA and AAMVA. “We touch base with AAMVA to run our performance against specs. We really learn a lot from that.”

Knowledge Sharing

Lewis encourages state licensing authorities to make use of AAMVA resources as much as possible. As an example, he describes how states can use an AAMVA-developed slate of tests to certify their commercial drivers. The tests’ questions cover “all knowledge aspects in the federal requirement and three separate skills tests. If states adopt [these tests] and use them as stated in the model manual, they’ll be compliant with the federal rule.” There is no need to re-invent the wheel.

AAMVA’s annual conference on CDL issues is another learning—and sharing—opportunity. “This year’s meeting was in Houston in February. We had 294 people from 51 jurisdictions, including FMCSA headquarters staff, state directors, state CDL and IT staffs, and AAMVA CDL and IT staffs,” says Lewis, adding that the various players had plenty to say. “They were not always in agreement, but everyone understands that they need to comply.”

The Big Guys

Of course, FMCSA is working actively to help the states to comply with the rules. Michael Gordon, transportation specialist/team leader, MCESL, CDL Divisions, FMCSA, also has a forum to recommend. “Last October, we began a CLP roundtable. Once a month, we host a WebEx conference call where state licensing agencies and FMCSA can talk about CLP implementation,” says Gordon. “We bring all parties together to discuss experiences, successes and difficulties. And sometimes [the state administrators] ask tough questions. We have to go back to study the issue so we can provide answers.”

And what are the consequences for non-compliance? It depends on where one is in the system. For drivers, enforcement is at the roadside. Law enforcement officers will report drivers who do not have the proper licensing or medical certification, which will be a red flag for future licensure. Carriers and driver schools face inspection from state and/or FMCSA investigators looking for up-to-date documentation and testing requirements.

And for the states, it comes down to dollars. Says Lewis: “CDL compliance is so important because of the repercussions. FMCSA will send a letter to the [non-compliant] state’s governor threatening the loss of up to 4 percent of federal highway funds. A second letter for continued non-compliance means a potential loss of up to 8 percent of funding. Nobody wants that to happen. AAMVA is here to help avoid that.”