Truck Accidents: Was the driver properly trained?

In many truck accident cases, particularly those involving less experienced drivers, there may be an issue about whether the driver was properly trained. What exactly is required in the training of truck drivers?

To put the issue in context, let us assume the following hypothetical.  A new graduate from a truck driving school who has his CDL applies on-line for a position as a driver with Acme Trucking, a well known interstate carrier.   A week later he receives a call from the Safety Director of Acme to come in for a personal interview.  During the interview, the following questions are asked:

Q.        So, I understand that you recently graduated from truck driving school and got your CDL.

                        A.        Yes.

                        Q.        Before going to school, did you ever drive a big rig?

                        A.        No.

                        Q.        How about a small commercial truck or van?

                        A.        No, sir.

                        Q.        How long have you had your driver’s license?

                        A.        I got my license when I was 19, but we did not have a car so I did not drive very much until I went to truck driving school.

                        Q.        How much did you drive the car before you went to school?

                        A.        I am not sure, maybe two or three times a month.

                        Q.        How did you do in truck driving school?

                        A.        O.k., I guess.  They passed me, and I got my CDL a couple of weeks ago.

                        Q.        Are you available now?

                        A.        Yes, sir.

                        Q.        O.k.  We have a trailer full of lumber that needs to get from here to San Bernardino, CA by Friday.  Do you think you can handle it?

                        A.        I will give it a try.  That is what I went to truck driving school for. Off goes the driver and two days later he causes a fatal accident when he suffers a blow out and could not keep the truck under control. 

Does plaintiff have a viable claim for improper training?  The answer is “Not certainly, but most likely.”  Here is the first thing to appreciate about our hypothetical case.  Under the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations, the Safety Director did nothing illegal in sending out this “rookie” by himself on a cross-country trip one week after he got his CDL.  The regulations in 49 CFR §391.11(b) say that there are only three (3) requirements to put a new driver out on the road: (1) He is 21 year of age or over; (2) He has a valid CDL; and (3) He has a valid medical certificate.

Beyond that, for entry level drivers (those are drivers who have a CDL but less than one year of experience) the only thing carriers are required to do is provide classroom training on subjects such as driver qualifications, hours of service limitations, driver wellness and whistle-blower protection.  See 49 CFR §380.503.

Surprising as it may be, there is no requirement in the regulations that the driver take a road test if one was administered as part of his CDL examination (§391.33(a)(1), nor is there any requirement for additional “on-the-job” training by trucking companies.  In fact, it was not until 2017 that the FMCSA even adopted regulations that address training requirements for students in truck driving school.  Those regulations, which take effect in 2020, set out criteria for, among other things, curriculum content and total number of hours of schooling, etc.  However, the FMCSA, after much debate and public comment, decided not to include a behind-the-wheel requirement of a certain number of hours of actual driving during school.  Thus, at least in theory, it is possible that the only time a student had behind the wheel of a truck would be during his CDL examination.

If a failure to train claim is asserted against the trucking company, rest assured they will argue vigorously that they complied with the federal regulations and that there was no requirement for them to provide any additional training to the “rookie” before putting him out on the road by himself.

While the trucking company is correct that there is no requirement that they provide so-called “finishing training,” (the term used in the industry for on-the-job training of new drivers who have their CDL) the plaintiff should be able to make a compelling case that the company failed to follow recommendations from both the FMCSA and industry organizations. 

As early as 2004, the FMCSA published a consensus document titled “Training of Commercial Motor Vehicle Drivers” which, after seeking the input of a variety of trucking companies across the country, made important observations and recommendations concerning the need for additional training beyond that necessary to pass the CDL examination.  Among other things, the 2004 document made the following statements, class=WordSection2>

“[I]t is not possible for a driver whose qualifications are limited to completion of a course designed solely to coach the student to pass the CDL exam, to assume sole responsibility for a heavy vehicle.”

“… [T]raining program effectiveness depends upon the qualifications and commitment of the trainer … these individuals must instill in entry level drivers not only the requisite knowledge and skill that make them able to perform everyday driving tasks, but also a safety culture that they will take with them when they have sole responsibility as a heavy vehicle operation….” class=WordSection3>

“The overall commitment of an organization to finishing training for entry level drivers … will dictate how training programs are structured and what resources are allocated to them…. “

“A number of recommended practices for improving training effectiveness for entry level CMV drivers are supported by this synthesis: 

            •           Industry-wide acceptance of, and adherence to, standards put forth by the PTDI as a minimum requirement for entry level (second seat) drivers and for the certification of driver trainers.

            •           Finishing training for first seat (solo) drivers … provide the PTDI recommended over-the-road, one-on-one training using certified company driver-finishing trainers for a number of miles or hours that are specified in advance and tied to performance-based criteria.”

The “PTDI” referred to by this FMCSA document is the Professional Truck Driving Institute.  This organization, which consists of trucking, insurance and government representatives, is the recognized industry leader on the subject of truck driver training.   Their standards are a valuable source of information for plaintiff’s counsel seeking to prove a negligent training claim.  Several years ago, PTDI convened a series of meetings among industry “ leaders to hash out “finishing standards” that were originally approved in 2000 and were recently updated and approved in 2016.  Among other things, PTDI says that in order to obtain certification, a trucking company’s “finishing training” program should have the following elements in place:

                        •           Written policies and procedures governing the program;

                        •           Written criteria foe accepting individuals as trainers;

                        •           Curriculum guidelines for the training program including program content and objectives;

                        •.          A minimum of 200 hours behind the wheel, with at least 100 of those hours with a trainer in the passenger’s seat.

For years many trucking companies have had a semblance of “finishing training” in place which typically involved paring a “rookie” driver with a more senior driver for a brief period of time.  However, many of these programs lacked clear criteria or oversight, and there was some doubt about how much real “training” was being done.  The PTDI standards attempt to make these finishing programs more uniform and  meaningful 

For a plaintiff’s counsel contemplating a negligent training claim, the bottom line is this: Be prepared to respond to the trucking company’s argument that they did not violate any federal regulations by pointing out that there are ample recommendations from the FMCSA and standards from PTDI which they did violate.  Read those documents carefully and be prepared to cite them when it is time to take the deposition of the carrier’s Safety Director.  In short, when it comes to training, it is not enough for a trucking company to say that they complied with the regulations by making sure the driver was over 21 and had a CDL and a proper medical certificate.