UniteGPS – It just got a whole lot more complicated to become a school bus driver in the United States due to new federal CDL requirements

Effective today, prospective holders of the Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) need to pass a theory curriculum and behind-the-wheel instruction from an official entity.

“It’s just really one of those very frustrating things because you have to sit back and say, who is this for? And what is the ultimate goal here?” said Rex Kozak, Director Of Transportation at Marshalltown Community School District in Iowa, in a recent interview with UniteGPS.

“I don’t think anybody just decided that they needed more regulations, they are already in a crisis all the way around for truck drivers as well as bus drivers. All we’re gonna do is compound our problem more… If people think we have a problem now, I can tell you it’s only the tip of the iceberg.”

For the theoretical test, CDL applicants must score 80 percent or higher on 31 different theoretical areas as part of revised entry-level driver training requisites. What’s more, entry-level drivers have to enroll with a certified instructor from the Training Provider Registry.

Not retroactive, the policy change applies to anyone applying for a Class A or Class B CDL for the first time, anyone upgrading a pre-existing CDL to a Class A or B, or getting a school bus, passenger, or hazardous materials endorsement for the first time.

As communities grapple with COVID-19 complications while finding enough drivers to cover routes, the updated legislation will ultimately create more obstacles for both bus drivers and school districts trying to keep in-person learning open.

Challenges with new CDL training requirements 

In order to obtain a CDL, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has required prospective school bus drivers must now enroll in a certified course and show proficiency in 31 topics before getting behind the wheel for the skills test.

A common critique of the new CDL training requirements is the technicality of the theoretical exam, such as the under the hood component involving the identification of engine parts. Although the DOT temporarily suspended this segment until March, bus drivers will still need to dedicate plenty of time to study in order to eventually pass. 

“You have to remember that bus drivers are not mechanics,” Kozak told UniteGPS, who considers school buses to be one of the safest modes of transportation out there in terms of mechanics. “They are having the drivers do and know mechanical stuff, and I haven’t seen a driver fix anything… Yes, there needs to be some training, I’m not going to argue that, but what is the end goal?”

While lawmakers promote improving interstate highway safety with this legislation, Kozak contends that school buses rarely travel across state lines, let alone the highway. Instead of forcing them to adhere to the same training standards as commercial truck drivers, he believes that school buses deserve their own CDL subdivision administered by the state.

Bus driver opinions on federal CDL requirements

Former school bus driver Mish’ael Martinez agrees that knowing the mechanics to inspect shocks and struts, for example, goes beyond the job description.

“I think that’s too much because this is taking you away out of what your job is supposed to be,” said Martinez, who drove a school bus in South Bend, Mishawaka, and New Carlisle, Indiana from 2015 until 2020. For her, the standard maintenance inspection should suffice.

“I feel like if there’s something technical that needs to be done, we have people to work on that… As far as checking the bus before we go, I don’t think it should be more than that.”

Despite getting along well with the students and administration, Martinez considers bus driving to be an inherently challenging gig.

“I just couldn’t stand doing it anymore. It’s just too much responsibility, too many things that you’re trying to keep track of on the road,” Martinez told UniteGPS. “Like I remember sliding around on the bypass when school is still open and there’s ice. I’m going 30 minutes one way and 30 minutes back, and I probably saw like 15 cars that went off the road. That was pretty scary.”

On top of the complexity of the exam, these new guidelines don’t supersede state requirements, meaning an even larger time commitment. In Iowa, for example, new CDL holders will still need to complete a 17-hour online course in order to get their bus driving credential, according to Kozak.