Federal Pilot Program Would Open Long-Distance Trucking to 18-Year Old Truck Drivers
The debate on whether to lower the age limit for interstate truck drivers has been in contention for two decades. However, a bipartisan group in Congress has drafted new legislation in addition to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) pilot program in recent weeks to bring the issue back to the forefront. The federal agency is proposing a pilot program that lets people as young as 18 become truck drivers. The legislation is backed by trucking companies, who argue that opening the doors for recruitment in high school will help lower turnover within the trucking industry.
Advocates for the American Trucking Associations said that trucking companies view this as an opportunity to recruit young truck drivers at high schools, and connect high school graduates to a truck driving career, thus reducing instability in both young peoples’ lives and in the trucking sector itself. Bill Sullivan, the executive vice president for advocacy at the American Trucking Associations, said that “[t]he reason that we want to reach people at the beginning of their work life is so we can present a career in trucking that can support their life and career over a longer period of time.”
Many safety organizations are opposed to the program, stating that lowering the age for interstate truckers will put more immature and inexperienced truck drivers on the road, thus leading to more car and truck accidents. Their argument is that data has shown drivers younger than 21 to be much more dangerous drivers.
The CDC reported that in addition to being inexperienced, statistics show that younger drivers are less likely to use seat belts, and more likely to speed, drive distracted, or get behind the wheel while under the influence. Furthermore, running the pilot could result in serious accidents and injuries should any of the trials go wrong. Cathy Chase, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, said that the situation is tricky because beta-testing a young driver’s abilities in tractor-trailers on populated roads could be hazardous to other motorists.
What The Trucking Industry Thinks
However, trucking companies support the legislation, claiming that this will help stabilize the trucking industry. They argue that currently, 49 of the 50 states already allow drivers under the age of 21 to acquire a commercial driver’s license, but that those drivers are only allowed to drive within the state until they turn 21. Interstate driving, however, is an essential part of trucking, and advocates for the pilot allege it is illogical for young drivers to be given a Commercial Driver’s License only to limit them to intrastate driving.
Furthermore, trucking companies say these rules create inequities for young drivers across the country. The trucking sector argues that it’s unfair for the federal government to confine young truck drivers to their own state because drivers living in large states such as Texas and California can travel much further than young drivers living in smaller states like Rhode Island and Delaware, greatly limiting young drivers’ job options in those smaller states.
That said, the legislation is not fully supported by the trucking industry. Jay Grimes, the director of regulatory affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, stated that reducing the age limit is the trucking sector’s attempt to side-step concerns about low pay and bad working conditions, and that major corporations can more easily exploit young truckers and subject them to longer hours and less pay.
But the American Trucking Associations representatives have framed things differently, arguing that since most truckers begin driving in their 30s, adapting the hiring process in a way that allows truck drivers to start earlier in their career could lower the rate of replacement that comes with hiring older, more established people who may find it harder to conform to a mobile lifestyle after having started a family.
The Origins and Logistics of the Pilot Program
This project has been in the works since 2000, when a group representing the trucking sector requested the federal government start a pilot program, but the idea didn’t gain traction until 2016. Then, Congress ordered the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to conduct a pilot consisting of drivers between the ages of 18 and 20 that had military truck driving training. However, the majority of military participants don’t leave the military at such a young age, which made it difficult for the pilot program to find potential truck drivers that fit those qualifications.
In 2019, advocates proposed that the pilot modify its qualifications, and in the fall of 2020, a design for a three-year program was published. The FMCSA said that they would work to hire 200 drivers on a probational status. Then, the drivers must have either one year and 25,000 miles of driving experience within state borders, or must log 240 hours of driving time. During the probationary period, drivers would not be allowed to drive hazardous materials or busses, and after the required drive time was completed, the younger participants’ performance would be compared to that of drivers within a 21-24 age group.
Presently, the legislation is supported by 145 House members and 36 senators, though the bills have stalled in Congress since their introduction last year. With the incoming new administration and newly elected members of Congress, it will be interesting to see what happens with the legislation.
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