GAINESVILLE — Georgians will be seeing more trucks on the highway in coming years — at least, if economic development plans pan out as the governor’s office expects.
The Department of Driver Services has begun implementing a new commercial driver’s license testing process in anticipation of a surge in demand for truck drivers. Officials said they expect the state to gain thousands of new truck driver positions in coming years.
A report by the Governor’s Office of Workforce Development projects an additional 12,778 truck driver job openings in the next four years, while a Georgia Department of Labor report on work force trends projects more than 7,000 new heavy tractor-trailer driver positions will be added by 2020.
After a successful pilot program in Gainesville, which houses one of nine commercial testing facilities in the state, instructors statewide now administer commercial road tests using tablets instead of the old paper-and-pencil method.
Department Commissioner Rob Mikell said the new method will make the process more efficient so the testing facilities can handle the expected surge in new drivers and will also improve safety and accuracy and reduce the potential for fraud.
Mikell, who was appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal, said the need for more drivers is expected in part because of the deepening of the Port of Savannah.
Plans for the expansion, which were approved for additional funding from the federal government in June, are in response to an expansion of the Panama Canal.
Mikell said more trucks will be needed to handle additional goods that will come through the port, which he said will be able to handle larger boats after the expansion.
“They’ve got to get goods either through the world’s busiest airport [in Atlanta] or the world’s third-largest port [in Savannah],” Mikell said. “There are going to be more and more CDL drivers coming into Savannah to fill that need.”
Jeff Humphreys of the University of Georgia’s Selig Center for Economic Growth said the expansion is not a guarantee for economic growth. He said in June the economic impact of the expansion won’t be clear until the expanded port has been operating for some time.
He said the project will help the port stay competitive once the Panama Canal expansion is complete.
The Savannah expansion, he said, is largely about keeping up, “retaining the economic impact that we already enjoy.”
Whether the Savannah port expansion has the impact Miskell expects, the new tablet-based testing is expected to improve the process of licensing commercial drivers in a number of ways.
Kyle Cain, a Department of Driver Services district manager who assists with training for commercial tests, said the new tablets greatly reduce the potential for human error when calculating scores.
“The process is so much more extensive than what we do for just regular car tests,” he said. “Some tractor trailers could be 107 items, and the examiner had to add that up at the end. The tablet takes out [the potential for] human calculation error that could affect [whether the result of the test is] pass or fail.”
The tablets will also use GPS to track testing routes, showing exactly where mistakes on the test were made and ensuring the correct route is taken. And they reduce the potential for improper test administration by keeping track of which version of the test drivers have already taken.
Drivers who repeat the test must take a different version, and the tablets ensure the same version is not erroneously administered, as well as storing photos of drivers to prevent any confusion of identity and making the archive of previously administered tests easily accessible.
“It’s just a much more safe, accurate and secure method,” Cain said.
He added that the commercial truck-driving test, which is subject to federal rules, takes about two hours, including a 45-minute road test.
Tablets are not yet being used for the shorter, state-regulated noncommercial driving test, but department officials said they hope it eventually will be available.
Meanwhile, Gainesville’s Department of Driver Services location is preparing to take part in a pilot program for customer kiosks. The kiosks will allow customers to take a number showing their place in line themselves, freeing the attendants who currently hand out numbers to focus on other issues including maintaining an efficient flow in department lobbies.
There are plans to implement an online reservation system that would further streamline the process of entering a driver services facility. Department officials said they expect to begin testing the kiosks later this summer.