Commercial Driver's Licensing:

Federal Oversight of State Programs Could Be Improved

GAO-15-607: Published: Jul 15, 2015. Publicly Released: Jul 15, 2015.

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What GAO Found

A majority of states (29 of 50) use both state testers, such as departments of motor vehicle sites, and third party testers to administer commercial driver's license (CDL) driving “skills” tests. Some of the states that use third party testers allow a wide range of training schools, motor carriers, and others to be testers, but other states are more restrictive. For example, some only allow motor carriers to test their own employees. These 29 states, as well as 10 others that reported only using third party testers, indicated that the states' licensing agency uses third parties to increase the availability of the driving skills test, among other reasons. Eleven states and D.C. chose not to use third parties because, for example, some perceived greater fraud risk with third party testers.

Skills test appointments are likely available within a week or two, but waits can be longer depending on a range of factors. Most officials from licensing agencies that had state test sites reported that skills test appointments were typically available within 2 weeks at those sites, while most officials from the states that had third party testers reported likely availability at those sites within 1 week. Multiple factors, such as federal- and state-mandated wait times (intended to encourage drivers to practice) and state resources may affect scheduling and add weeks to the wait for a skills test. However, stakeholders generally indicated that the wait for a skills test was not an obstacle to obtaining eventual employment with a carrier given the high demand for people with CDLs.

In 2013, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) established a policy for overseeing states' compliance with its CDL regulations, including requirements for FMCSA field office personnel to conduct periodic reviews. This policy and its implementation has several weaknesses.

  • Some elements of FMCSA's oversight policy are unclear. For example, the policy does not clearly delineate the frequency and type of skills test reviews that should be completed. Consequently, there is a lack of assurance that FMCSA personnel responsible for conducting oversight will have a clear understanding of what is expected of them and that oversight will be conducted consistently.
  • FMCSA's data system for tracking oversight activities does not readily provide management with accurate and complete information on oversight reviews because it is difficult for users to input or review some information. In 6 of the 12 states in which GAO conducted interviews, FMCSA field office personnel indicated that they primarily used the data system to monitor non-compliance and were less likely to use the system for logging oversight activities because of, for example, difficulties in using the system. As a result, FMCSA management does not have complete and accurate information on what oversight reviews are completed and whether they are conducted per agency policy.

Without a clear policy on oversight of CDL programs and a mechanism to accurately track these activities, consistent with federal standards for internal control, FMCSA cannot provide reasonable assurance that state CDL programs comply with applicable federal regulations, the primary objective of FMCSA oversight.

Why GAO Did This Study

Commercial motor-vehicle industry stakeholders have raised concerns that prospective drivers may face delays taking the skills test generally needed to obtain a CDL. As of July 2015, state CDL programs are subject to revised federal regulations that increase federal safety standards and place new requirements on states' licensing agencies. FMCSA must oversee states' compliance with these rules.

GAO was asked to review issues related to CDL skills testing. This report examines: (1) how states administer skills tests; (2) what is known about waits for skills tests; and (3) how FCMSA oversees these tests. GAO reviewed FMCSA regulations and oversight policies and documentation; compared FMCSA's policies and practices to federal internal control standards; surveyed licensing agency officials in 50 states and D.C.; interviewed licensing agency officials in 12 states, selected to include states that use a mix of test administration methods and had the largest number of CDL holders, among other factors; and interviewed representatives of industry stakeholders, such as training schools and motor carriers, and FMCSA officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that FMCSA (1) clarify agency policy on oversight of states' CDL programs and (2) improve or obtain a mechanism to track oversight activities. The Department of Transportation agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Susan Fleming at (202) 512-2834 or flemings@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) administers the federal commercial driver's license (CDL) program by setting federal standards for CDL knowledge and driving skills tests; and among other things overseeing state CDL programs to assure that these programs--such as skills testing practices--comply with federal CDL regulations. In 2015, GAO reported that FMCSA had established a policy for its oversight of state CDL programs, but three key elements of the policy were unclear. First, the policy does not clearly delineate the frequency and type of skills test reviews that should be completed. Second, the policy states that reviews are intended to assess the state's compliance with applicable regulations, but does not specifically explain how reviewers must or should assess state's compliance and then document that determination if the state is found to be in compliance. Third, the policy does not clearly explain what records of FMCSA's compliance reviews must be recorded in the Automated Compliance Review System (ACRS), its oversight-tracking database. Therefore, GAO recommended that FMCSA clarify agency policy on (1) what oversight of states will be conducted by FMCSA in terms of the frequency and type of required and recommend reviews, (2) how compliance determinations should be made and documented, and (3) what information and documentation must be recorded and available to FMCSA management on oversight activities and compliance determinations. Given these weaknesses, FMCSA management may not have adequate information to know oversight activities cover all applicable regulations. In 2016, FMCSA issued a new policy memo that updated its oversight roles, responsibilities, and procedures. This memo (1) clearly states the frequency and type of oversight reviews that must be completed annually; (2) specifies procedures for determining compliance and documenting reviews; and (3) requires oversight activities are logged in ACRS. Additionally, FMCSA provided a series of trainings to field personnel on the policy to ensure it was understood by staff responsible for conducting oversight. As a result, FMCSA is in a better position to provide reasonable assurance that the agency's oversight efforts are ensuring that states' CDL programs are complying with federal regulations and conducting CDL skills tests as they should.

    Recommendation: To improve FMCSA's oversight of state's CDL testing programs and ensure the FMCSA's oversight activities provide reasonable assurance that states' programs comply with federal regulations, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FMCSA Administrator to clarify agency policy--by revising policy documentation, issuing additional guidance, training, or other mechanisms--on (1) what oversight of states will be conducted by FMCSA in terms of the frequency and type of required and recommend reviews, (2) how compliance determinations should be made and documented, and (3) what information and documentation must be recorded and available to FMCSA management on oversight activities and compliance determinations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Transportation concurred with GAO's recommendation and is in the process of developing a new system for tracking oversight activities and results.

    Recommendation: To improve FMCSA's oversight of state's CDL testing programs and ensure the FMCSA's oversight activities provide reasonable assurance that states' programs comply with federal regulations, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FMCSA Administrator to improve or obtain a mechanism for tracking oversight activities in order that FMCSA management has a clear and accurate understanding of oversight activities and that they are being conducted in accordance with agency oversight policy.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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