Waves of Change

Waves of Change

How jurisdictions are preparing for a surge of new FMCSA rules

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States are gearing up for the implementation of three different rule changes by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration designed to keep unsafe drivers from operating commercial vehicles. The common thread between the three rules is an embrace of instantaneous electronic data sharing that will enable jurisdictions to more quickly flag drivers who either should have their commercial licenses downgraded, or whose applications for commercial licenses should be denied.

“Our mission is to promote public safety and keep safe drivers on the road, and these updates really help to make that a better process,” says Brit Akagi, IT and quality assurance manager within the Driver License Division of the Utah Department of Public Safety.

The biggest challenge is timing. States must be compliant with the first rule, mandating exclusively electronic exchanges of data between jurisdictional partners and the FMCSA, on August 22 of this year. The second change, requiring participation in a nationwide electronic data clearinghouse of drug- and alcohol-related licensing restrictions, goes into effect in November. And the third new program, a national electronic registry of medical examiners whose certifications will help govern whether drivers with conditions such as physical impairments are eligible for commercial licenses, is set to go live in June 2025.

“It’s a little over a year to implement three very important and very extensive federal changes, and each of these mandates requires SDLAs [State Driver’s Licensing Agencies] to implement both system and procedure changes,” says Pamela Dsa, senior project director for driver systems at AAMVA.

So, yes, it’s a lift—a worthy one, but a lift nonetheless. Texas Department of Public Safety, for example, hired an external vendor to enable it to meet the compliance deadlines.

“We appreciate the work our state safety partners are putting in place to ensure they are ready to meet these requirements by the respective effective dates,” says FMCSA spokesperson Cicely Waters. “All three of these final rules will close loopholes and help keep unsafe drivers off our nation’s roadways.”

In each case, AAMVA is helping states prepare for the transition. Those efforts include pre-implementation testing, and AAMVA also will act as an ongoing partner facilitating communication and data transmission among states and with FMCSA.

Here’s a look at what each change will accomplish, and how states are preparing for the transition.

Exclusive Electronic Exchange

The first implementation date belongs to FMCSA’s new Exclusive Electronic Exchange (EEE), which goes into effect on August 22. Electronic data exchange is not a new idea in this space: The vast majority of commercial driver data already is transmitted electronically via the Commercial Driver’s License Information System (CDLIS). Instead, the key word driving the new rule is “exclusive”—EEE is focused on eliminating the edge cases where states sometimes still rely on paper. These are the instances, as Dsa puts it, “where maybe a system goes down or is unavailable, or some exception has been triggered” because of a factor such as a peer jurisdiction missing a system pointer.

“When you have a conviction, time is of the essence—you want to make sure that the information is shared quickly. So for a long time, in those cases it was ‘Let’s just send paper,’ because they’re trying to communicate quickly,” Dsa says.

Accordingly, states are now identifying those exceptions and making plans to handle them electronically. AAMVA is coordinating structured testing, which is especially challenging because the point is not for states to show that they can execute electronic transactions—it’s to ensure that they only execute electronic transactions. To do that, AAMVA is incorporating unique testing features such as questionnaires aimed at self-certification.

In early February, Georgia became the first state to implement EEE—and quickly learned that when dealing with edge-case records, electronic doesn’t necessarily mean automated.

“There’s still a level of manual analysis and effort that has to go into processing those,” says Juenesse Holman, deputy director of regulatory compliance at the Georgia Department of Driver Services.

Some of that work is likely temporary, as Georgia’s team works with its peers from other SDLAs to iron out the irregularities. That seems to be a major benefit of the EEE mandate: It’s forcing states to get on the same page regarding record irregularities and ACD code usage.

“We’ve learned to communicate with other states differently, cultivating better relationships and learning what they’re doing. That’s going to help us to continue to develop,” says Brent Bennett, director of regulatory compliance at the Georgia Department of Driver Services.

Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse

FMCSA’s Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse (DACH) is intended to facilitate faster and more complete record sharing amongst SDLAs regarding commercial drivers with drug and alcohol violations. Historically, many drivers have been able to continue operating commercial vehicles despite drug- and alcohol-related offenses that are supposed to sideline them, either by moving to a different state or because their violation status is not flagged until they’re stopped by law enforcement.

In other words, the existing process for downgrading drivers in violation is often reactive rather than proactive. DACH aims to change that by holding violation records for all drivers in a single, central repository that every SDLA will query regularly. The new rule calls for states to automatically downgrade the licenses of drivers with drug and alcohol violations by removing their commercial-driving privileges.

It’s a welcome addition for SDLA leaders because it promises safer roads. Yet implementation is a challenge—perhaps even more so than with EEE. For one thing, in many states new laws are required to authorize automatic license downgrades. And while states such as Georgia have passed the necessary legislation (Georgia’s law still awaits the governor’s signature), others such as Utah are still awaiting passage.

There are also technical hurdles, as DACH requires several new codes and messages, and FMCSA has continued to tweak its system, creating challenges for states that hoped to test and implement early. Also, states have an option either to connect to DACH directly via FMCSA or alternately via CDLIS.

“We wanted to have everything taken care of so we would not have to redo the process later,” says Utah’s Akagi. The direct-connect option “would have just been a Band Aid until we implemented the AAMVA solution.”

SDLA leaders in Texas are looking at DACH and EEE as a part of a broader wave of software modernization projects ranging from the adoption of updated underlying architecture to projects such as the Stateto-State Verification Service and Driver History Record functionality that are not limited to commercial driving applications.

The broader portfolio view “ensures a continuity of system knowledge and valuable insight into business processes, which makes our discussions with AAMVA more fluid about required changes and how each version builds on the prior version,” says Rebekah Hibbs, senior manager of Records and Enforcement Service with the Texas Department of Public Safety.

The final DACH hurdle is logistical: In many states, when the new DACH system is implemented in December, lots of drivers will be affected. Georgia estimates that thousands of drivers will be affected, and the state is hiring a new employee to run a CDL help desk dedicated to communicating with affected drivers about their loss of privilege, as well as the return-to-drive process they must complete prior to reinstatement.

Medical Examiner’s Certification

After the new DACH system goes live in November, states have a bit of time before the third new FMCSA rule goes into effect in June 2025—just enough time to complete one project and focus on the next, which is the full automation of the National Registry of Certified Medical Examiners.

“As soon as we’re finished with DACH, we’re going to take [the National Registry] full speed ahead,” says Georgia’s Bennett.

That rule calls for electronic sharing of the certification of medical fitness given to commercial drivers—a process that until now has often been paper-driven, as examiners directly hand the certification paperwork to drivers, who then are tasked with submitting it to state authorities. The new rule will facilitate centralized and automated input of the medical examiners’ certification into a national clearinghouse similar to DACH. The new process is still in the planning phase, and testing has not yet begun.

Taken together, the three new FMCSA rules make for a somewhat daunting gauntlet that state leaders must navigate quickly. Despite the challenges, they say the projects are worthwhile.

“[The] regulations represent a significant stride toward improved highway safety,” says Hibbs. “By fostering a more comprehensive and interconnected system for tracking CDL holder violations and enforcing driving prohibitions, these measures aim to significantly reduce the number of crashes involving drivers who pose a demonstrable safety risk.”

Learn more about examiner training and examination in AAMVAcast Episode 206: tinyurl.com/jz5ukzk5.

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