© Auremar | Dreamstime
Young Male Truck Driver

Can Younger Truck Drivers Be Safer?

Aug. 26, 2021
The trucking industry believes it has found the key.

As the truck driver shortage gets more dire by the day, researchers believe they have found a way to choose with a greater degree of confidence those potential recruits who are the safest drivers among the 18 to 21-year-olds who are currently prohibited from interstate truck driving.

For many years the trucking industry has raised the alarm about the worsening shortage of qualified truck drivers, and has sought the ability to recruit drivers who are younger than the 21-year-old minimum age currently set by law for obtaining a commercial driver license (CDL).

The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) is working on the problem and believes researchers have come up with what is a realistic solution. It recently released the results of the Phase 1 Beta Test of its Younger Driver Assessment Tool (YDA), which is being created to identify the safest drivers among 18-20 year olds, which could turn out to be a critical component in expanding CDL eligibility to younger drivers.

Estimates from American Trucking Associations (ATA) project that the driver shortage will top 100,000 by the year 2023 due to projected freight growth, industry retirements and competition for workers from other industries. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than a quarter of the industry’s current driver workforce (27.4%) is over the age of 55 and nearing retirement.

The ATRI researchers agree, pointing out that, “the aging demographics of the trucking industry’s workforce puts significant pressure on the industry to increase the available pool of qualified truck drivers.”

The seriousness of the driver shortage also can be gauged by the fact that the International Trade Administration’s 45-member Advisory Committee on Supply Chain Competitiveness earlier this month urged the Secretary of Commerce to lead a federal government effort to address the issue, with a major focus on opening up driver jobs to younger people.

“The department should work with the Department of Transportation (DOT) to remove obstacles to domestic goods movement, including but not limited to enabling under-21 CDL drivers to handle interstate commerce; addressing driver retention, training and workplace concerns within the industry; and enhancing ‘last-mile’ connectivity options that connect workers with new workplace locations,” the committee wrote.

ATRI also notes that one of the issues trucking operations face in finding and keeping drivers is the challenging lifestyle inherent in a long-haul driving career. The job can be stressful with extended time away from home and family, irregular schedules often exacerbated by traffic congestion and customer detention, and the lack of available, safe places to park a truck for a driver’s mandated rest breaks.

Young Drivers Are Vital

All of those issues need to be addressed, but first a way needs to be found to recruit younger drivers before they have chosen careers in other industries, the trucking industry argues. ATRI believes the best route to that future will be paved with methods for identifying those needed young people who will be most likely to drive safely.

The industry has backed the DRIVE-Safe Act, introduced in Congress in 2018 and reintroduced this year. If enacted, it would open a way for 18-20 year-olds to drive in interstate operations. The passage of that legislation through Congress could be smoother if a method could be found to address lingering concerns about putting teenagers behind the wheels of 80,000-pound semi tractor-trailers.

We all know that that many young people are inclined to engage in driving-related higher-risk behaviors. “The emerging adult period, from 18-25 years of age, is associated with levels of immature cognitive and socioemotional function and with higher rates of risk-taking behavior relative to other time periods in life,” ATRI admits. “Many forms of adolescent and young adult risk-taking behaviors lead to preventable negative outcomes including motor vehicle crashes.”

Data from the Department of Transportation (DOT) shows that young people who are under 24 years of age represented 18.4% of drivers who were involved in fatal crashes in 2017, although they represented just 11.8% of the licensed driving population that year.

ATRI’s preliminary research indicated that unsafe driving in non-commercial settings could be reliably predicted by identifying a number of measurable individual difference factors. Among them were such personality traits as high levels of impulsivity, aggression/frustration and sensation-seeking.

Other contributing factors were believed to be health status (high Body Mass Index or BMI; poor sleep; fatigue and attention deficit disorder); lifestyle factors (such as increased substance use), and cognitive ability (low intelligence and low executive function). Inexperience also was identified as a significant and salient predictor of driver risk.

Many of these factors have been tested as predictors of safety among non-commercial drivers but have seen only limited application to the commercial driving population, making it unclear which of these characteristics can be predictive of driver safety in younger drivers and among drivers of commercial vehicles, ATRI said.

After making its initial observations, ATRI assembled a comprehensive assessment battery to administer to current commercial truck drivers representing a broad range of ages, driving experience and safety performance. This was called the Phase 1 Beta Test of the ATRI Younger Driver Assessment Tool, which took place last year.

Expansive Test Criteria

The researchers requited a total of 94 truck drivers who ranged in age from 20 to 60 years, who were drawn from a variety of sources. They then took a battery of written tests and the results were compared against their driving records, which they earlier had agreed to volunteer. Among the measures taken were assessments of types of personality traits, emotional mood, reasoning, impulsivity, sensation-seeking, sleep quality and cognitive control.

The researchers also analyzed the group’s demographic breakdown and delved into various health measurements, such as BMI, sleep quality, and drug and alcohol use.

Among the statistically significant findings, the study discovered that the safest drivers based on their state Motor Vehicle Record (MVR) and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) Pre-Employment Screening Program (PSP) data were those who had the highest scores on Conscientiousness and Agreeableness, and the lowest scores on Experience-Seeking.

On the other hand, drivers who were found to be in the “less safe” group exhibited marginally greater sensitivity to conflict in the Multi-Source Interference Task, which indicated they had difficulties with cognitive control.

Although the test included only 16 drivers under the age of 30, the assessment did show sensitivity to age-related variations in performance. The age sensitivity relationship to safety also materialized in older drivers with fewer years of experience. As a result, it is expected that the resulting assessment tool will attempt to identify younger drivers with the cognitive and mental attributes of mature, experienced drivers.

Although this test covered only a small sample of drivers, the researchers concluded that the truck driving safety profiles of current truck drivers, as measured by MVR and PSP data, can be distinguished based on personality traits, physiological characteristics and aspects of mental health.

“With expanded statistical validation, this methodology may be successfully applied to the assessment and selection of new entrants into the industry’s workforce, including younger drivers, to assist in the identification of those who are most likely to drive safely,” ATRI said. “This is of particular importance as the industry evaluates the potential for younger drivers to mitigate the driver shortage.”

For the next phase of research, ATRI plans to expand the sample size to 300 drivers; increase the sample of younger drivers; expand the range of participating drivers’ histories; and shorten the testing battery to eliminate what are now seen as irrelevant factors (such as BMI). Phase 2 of the testing is expected to take place in the fourth quarter of this year.

Latest from Transportation & Distribution