Should the Driving Age for Truckers Be Lowered?

Should the Driving Age for Truckers Be Lowered?

Would young interstate commercial truck drivers breathe new life into the trucking industry, or would they endanger lives on the road?

That’s the critical debate between the two sides supporting and opposing a controversial bill to lower the interstate truck driving age. A bipartisan coalition reintroduced The Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy (DRIVE-Safe) Act this past February. Originally proposed in 2018, the bill needed to be brought before the new Congress. If passed, the act would remove federal regulatory barriers that prevent under 21-year-old commercial drivers from crossing state lines, and would also establish new safety training procedures for drivers.

Under the bill, 18- to 21-year-old drivers would complete a two-step training program that includes at least 400 hours of on-duty time and 240 hours of driving time with an experienced driver in the cab after earning a Commercial Drivers’ License (CDL). The apprenticeship “would help guarantee that younger drivers are trained beyond current safety standards,” according to Jon Tester, D-Montana, one of the bill’s sponsors. In addition, drivers would only be allowed to drive trucks equipped with specific safety technology, including active braking collision mitigation systems, forward-facing video cameras, and speed governors set no higher than 65 miles per hour.

The DRIVE-Safe Act’s Pros

The bill’s sponsors and co-sponsors cited the time-critical need for more truck drivers. In July, the American Trucking Association (ATA) updated its numbers for the past year, saying that by the end of 2018, the industry was short 60,800 drivers. 

The ATA leads the pro-DRIVE-Safe coalition, along with over 40 other national trade associations and companies. “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 and CEO Chris Spear. “Moreover, this bill would strengthen training programs beyond current requirements to ensure safety and that drivers are best prepared.”

Another pro-bill argument: Drivers as young as 18 are already driving commercial trucks, just not across state lines. Forty-nine states now allow 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old drivers to drive intrastate. Alaska still requires drivers to be 19, but this May Alabama lowered the CDL eligibility age to 18. And in a show of support for young truckers, Colorado passed a law that will open interstate trucking opportunities to people between the ages of 18 and 21. Governor Jared Polis acknowledged that the law can’t help young commercial drivers cross state lines until the federal law changes, but hoped it would show the state’s support for a change. “Hopefully, this is an impetus to get other states to get on the bandwagon and get this done,” he said.

The Cons

But not everyone wants to get this law passed, most notably the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA). “It’s irresponsible to put young drivers behind the wheel of a truck in order to avoid addressing the real problems of high turnover,” said Todd Spencer, acting president of OOIDA. ”The focus should instead be on fixing the staggering turnover rate with better pay and working conditions.”

In a letter to Congress opposing the DRIVE-Safe) Act, OOIDA said it believes that an influx of younger drivers would negatively affect driver wages and working conditions. Dissociation also doesn’t believe there is a driver shortage. “I really can’t think of a worse response to the myth of a driver shortage than to lower the driving age or reduce the already low standard to get a CDL,” Spencer told a subcommittee. “This is really a highway safety issue. What’s not a myth is that new drivers crash more often and that younger drivers crash more often.” The OOIDA letter to Congress emphasizes that safety concern, reporting that “among other statistics and concerns, intrastate CMV drivers under the age of 19 are four times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes and CMV drivers who are 19-20 years of age are six times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes.”

A Pilot Project Proving Ground

The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, a nonprofit advocacy group, is obviously concerned about safety. The Alliance’s Chris Turner says it is open to lowering the age limit for drivers but would like information that backs up proponents’ claims that extra training makes safer drivers. “We’d like to gather some data to make sure we…make good decisions based on verifiable data that can be reproduced,” said Turner.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) wants to gather that data. Eighteen-to-twenty-year olds with the U.S. Military equivalent of a commercial driver’s license can now apply to a new FMSCA interstate driver pilot project. The young drivers (who must be sponsored by a participating trucking company) will have their safety records compared to the records of a control group of drivers aged 21-24.

The pilot project will run for up to three years and may be complemented by a partner project. The FMCSA is currently requesting comments on an expanded pilot program which would widen the scope of the project/study to drivers without military driver training. “We want input from the public on efforts that offer the potential to create more jobs in the commercial motor vehicle industry while maintaining the highest level of safety,” said FMCSA Administrator Ray Martinez. Stakeholders can comment on the “training, qualifications, driving limitations, and vehicle safety systems that FMCSA should consider in approaches” at the Federal Register Notice outlining the request.

Considering the Issue

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