Training requirements for new commercial drivers in Alaska tightened on Monday

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A school bus idles in front of Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé in Juneau on Nov. 10, 2020. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

New rules for new commercial drivers and for those upgrading their licenses came into effect on Monday. The new regulations require more in-depth instructions for anyone wishing to obtain a new Class B or higher license. But costs for most tour operators in tourist towns like Skagway won’t be as high as some feared.

New Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration rules for novice commercial drivers will require more formal training for anyone wishing to operate a vehicle beyond 26,000 pounds. In Skagway, small tour operators rely on hiring and training new tour guides from season to season. Fortunately for most Skagway companies, their vehicles do not exceed this weight limit and will not require further training.

Chris Lisenby of the Alaska Driving Academy in Soldotna says his Beginner driver training program switched to the new program when the administration first announced it would raise the standards a few years ago.

“Too many people were going to get the quickie license,” he said. “Getting my license, getting out and driving, and that was bad for the industry. Motor carriers didn’t like that because they were hiring drivers who didn’t know anything about the industry and had minimal skills. And it is not safe for motorists.

The new requirements for new Class A and B drivers call for a score of 80% or higher on 30 class units. Afterwards, drivers will spend time with an instructor to learn how to drive the vehicle. Previously, drivers could study on their own, pass a test, and hit the road quickly.

Greg Clem owns Klondike Tours and will begin operating Skagway’s SMARTbus shuttle service in April. He says all of his vehicles are under the weight limit, but he will need to make some changes to train new Class C drivers to drive his airport shuttle-sized buses.

He must first become a certified instructor.

“It’s a lot of paperwork, but it’s all free. Assuming I do the training, they would come to me first. According to the laws, I have to do passenger approval, according to reality, I would train them on everything,” Clem said.

But as of now, there is no road course or CDL examiner available at Skagway. This means that to obtain a full license to drive tours in Skagway, new drivers will need to bring a bus to Juneau to complete their testing. Clem says it will cost about $600 to put one of his smaller buses on the ferry, and about $200 more in fees.

New school bus drivers will be required to learn from a licensed instructor on the National Registry and complete the S Approval. For new drivers who want to get into driving large vehicles with air brakes or large rigs, training is more intense.

“If you’re class A or B, you need to go to a coach who has that title,” Clem said.

Courses at training schools in Alaska vary in length from five days to several weeks.

Sarah Douthit of the Kenai Peninsula Driving School says her school is asking students to complete some of their learning online before in-person instruction begins at school.

“Whether you go to a big school for six months, or you come here for a week of driving and a week of e-learning, as long as those requirements are met by your program, you can get into a CDL,” says Duthit.

The cost of courses at training schools in Alaska range from just over $5,000 to over $7,000, and most are located near major population centers.

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