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Should Truck Driving Age Be Lowered to Fill Driver Shortage?

July 18, 2018
Pending legislation would lower the age of truck drivers to 18 and ease the growing shortage, but can this group live up to the safety required?

With the White House shining a large spotlight on its support of lowering the age of truck drivers, the debate continues about the safety aspect of this policy.

Currently the ,law requires commercial truck drivers to be at least 21 to drive a large truck across state lines. But a Department of Transportation pilot program will allow some drivers as young as 18 to drive cross-country for private trucking companies. Specifically, the program would be available to some members of the national guard and others with military experience.

“Later this year, FMCSA will begin implementing a pilot program to allow 18- to 20-year-old drivers that have training and experience in certain military occupational specialties to operate commercial vehicles in interstate commerce,” said Duane DeBruyne, a spokesperson for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a division of DOT, as reported on June 28 in the Washington Post.

While that is a specific program relative to the military, the Drive Safe Act, which was introduced in March of this year and is awaiting further action, would allow for all 18-21-year-olds to operate a commercial vehicle.

The bill has the support of the American Trucking Association. “This is a common-sense proposal that will open enormous opportunities for the 18-21-year-old population, giving them access to a high-paying profession free of the debt burden that comes with a four-year degree,” said ATA President Chris Spear. 

While the ATA points to the advantages of this younger population, the underlying push for this policy is the trucking industry's large driver shortage that continues to grow.  Last year the association reported that the U.S. has a shortage of 51,000 long-haul drivers and it could jump to 63,000 this year.

Donald Lefeve, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association, a national trade group, said broadening the talent pool for cross-country drivers is the logical next step.

“Trucking is unable to compete against other professions to attract younger talent because of arbitrary age restrictions that were put in place in 1937,” Lefeve,  said, as reported by The Washington Post.  “Every state in the Lower 48 allows someone who holds an intrastate [license] to drive within their borders. We should let them be able to cross state lines.”

The food service industry agrees with this belief, as it’s been especially hard hit by the shortage of drivers. “This legislation paves the way for new drivers to sustain a safe and efficient supply chain for the more than one million restaurants and foodservice outlets in the U.S.,” said Mark Allen, CEO of the International Food Distributors Association.  “This bill creates opportunity while reinforcing a culture of safety to provide our nation’s youth with the critical skills they need to operate a truck in the 21st century.”

Safety Debate

It’s the safety issue that is being debated. While the ATA says the bill would “strengthen training programs beyond current requirements to ensure safety and that drivers are best prepared,  not everyone agrees.

At issue is both the ability and the safety record of this group.

“Younger drivers have higher crash rates,” said Henry Jasny, vice president and general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, in an article in the Washington Post.  “We have concerns about younger people who have less experience and less judgment going from state to state, from rural to urban areas.”

This concern is based up by the statistics. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, teenagers ages 16-19 are three times more likely than 20-year-olds to be involved in fatal crashes. They are linked to 11% of the motor-vehicles crashes.

There is limited data on the safety records of 18- to 21-year-old truck drivers, but studies suggest that, among the general population, the youngest drivers are the most dangerous, according to the Washington Post.

The industry’s answer to these safety concerns is that the new bill mandates extra supervision and a speed cap of 65 mph for younger trainees. It would also require teenagers to log 400 hours of on-duty driving and 240 hours of working with an experienced driver in the passenger seat before getting licensed to cross state lines.

While the safety issue is debated the trucking industry is pushing very hard for this change as it has said quite loudly that companies are losing money due to the shortage of truckers.

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