On Tuesday, January 4, 2022, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), in coordination with the Department of Education, announced that it was relaxing certain standards of the commercial driver’s license (CDL) skills test for school bus driver applicants. Specifically, the action would give States the option to temporarily waive one provision of the skills test that requires applicants to identify the “under the hood” engine components. Effective January 3, 2022, this temporary waiver expires on March 31, 2022. The remaining elements of the test (outlined in 49 CFR 383.113(a)(1)(ii-ix) remain effective.

This move by the FMCSA comes as schools across the country face ongoing challenges from a growing shortage of school bus drivers, which has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 health crises. This has forced school districts to ask parents to drive their children to school and, in some instances, even cancel classes altogether. By removing this requirement, the FMCSA is hoping to increase the pool of eligible drivers to fill current vacancies.

What the waiver covers

Under the Secretary of Transportation’s power to grant temporary waivers under the Transportation Equity Act, this wavier:

  • Waives 49 CFR 383.113(a)(1)(i), which requires CDL applicants to identify the safety-related components of the engine and explain the proper inspection steps to ensure each component is in operable condition. These waived safety-related components include: oil level; coolant level; power steering fluid/belt/gear; water pump belt/gear; alternator belt/gear; air compressor (belt/gear) or hydraulic master cylinder; and leaks/hoses;
  • Waives 49 CFR 383.113(c), which requires that States administer and score the CDL skills test based on the standards outlined in the FMCSA pre-approved examiner information manual. Instead, States may deviate to the extent the standards require administration and scoring of the engine compartment portion of the test that is waived.

Pursuant to the restrictions governing use of waivers, the FMCSA has determined that the granted waiver will not impact safety, as the remaining requirements under the test demonstrate a driver’s ability to safely operate the special features of a school bus. Additionally, the short distances that bus drivers typically travel makes any roadside assistance from engine malfunction more available and thus less essential for the drivers themselves to be familiar with.

Critically, drivers who receive a CDL under this temporary waiver are only authorized to operate instrastate school buses used to transport students from home to school, from school to home, or to and from school-sponsored events. Their license will not extend to other commercial vehicles like trucks or motorcoaches. Moreover, any State oversight of vehicle maintenance and inspection requirements would still apply under the waiver.

Enforcement

States issuing CDLs pursuant to this waiver must signal a “school bus only” designation on the individual’s license. Upon request by the FMCSA, State driver licensing agencies must provide the names and CDL numbers of the drivers who receive licenses under the waiver, for the purpose of monitoring these drivers to determine whether the waiver should ultimately be revised or revoked.

What this means for schools

Most importantly, this waiver will alleviate the burdens placed on schools in obtaining qualified school bus drivers, which have negatively impacted the efficient operation of schools that have passed these burdens on to parents or forced schedule changes. This is all the more impactful given how the recent availability of Covid-19 vaccines for school-aged children has increased the number of children returning to the classroom, simultaneously increasing the need for school bus drivers. However, because the waiver is voluntary, schools located in States that choose not to avail themselves of the temporary measure will not receive these benefits.

The FMCSA waiver can be found at https://www.fmcsa.dot.gov/sites/fmcsa.dot.gov/files/2022-01/FMCSA%20School%20Bus%20Waiver%20-%20COVID%20Response%20-%20FINAL%20-%20Jan%203%2022.pdf