Trucking Industry Favors Teen Drivers Over No Drivers

July 19, 2018 by Cyndia Zwahlen

A renewed push is underway to put older teens behind the wheel of big rigs on interstate highways.

The move comes amid fear of a driver shortage, and trucking industry representatives along with some politicians believe that changing federal safety rules by lowering the legal age for interstate truck drivers is a solution.

But there are ongoing safety concerns about the higher crash rates of younger drivers. Previous efforts to change the rules also have failed. The trucking industry hopes to change that.

Earlier this month, a pilot program called for in the Obama-era Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act, was moved a step forward by the federal agency that oversees truck safety. The program waives minimum age requirements for cross-country truckers but is limited to certain military personnel. It is now in its second public comment period.

For decades, interstate truck drivers in the U.S. have had to be at least 21. Most states allow older teens — those 18 or 19 — and 20 year olds to drive heavy trucks only inside state lines.

In March, a bill was submitted that would skip the pilot program requirements and change the safety rules to allow older teen drivers and 20 year olds to cross state lines in heavy trucks after undergoing extra training. The DRIVE-Safe Act also would limit them to trucks outfitted with certain safety gear, including speed limiters

In September 2017, a bill was introduced that would expand the pilot program. The WHEEL Act would allow any qualified driver younger than 21 to apply to participate.

Neither bill has gained much momentum, but the trucking industry is hopeful.

“By infusing more youth into our industry, we can widen the pool of possible drivers,” said Sean McNally, a spokesman for the American Trucking Associations.

Getting younger people involved earlier would help trucking from losing potential drivers to other industries, McNally said. It also will “help younger people build rewarding careers, thus keeping them in the industry longer.”

The trucking industry says that, with the right controls in place, allowing younger drivers makes sense.

But allowing teens to drive 18 wheelers cross country remains controversial.

Younger drivers are more dangerous

Safety advocates continue to say that lowering the legal age to drive big rigs on interstate trips is not worth the risk. Even if the proposed programs come with extra training, restrictions and mandatory safety technology on the trucks, driver age itself remains an ongoing hazard.

Drivers ages 16 through 19 were involved in fatal passenger vehicle crashes at a rate nearly 30 percent higher than drivers ages 20 through 24 in 2014-15, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, which tracks rates per 100 million miles driven based on National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash data. The youngest drivers crashed 40 percent more often than drivers ages 25 through 29, and their crash rate was more than twice that of drivers 30 and older.

“We already know that younger drivers in passenger vehicles are at higher risk so we don’t think it makes sense to put them behind the wheels of 80,000-pound trucks,” said Eric Teoh, senior statistician at the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety.

And heavy truck crashes can be particularly deadly. Large trucks made up 4 percent of vehicles on the road in 2013 but accounted for 9 percent of fatal crashes that year, according to the National Safety Council. Truck driving is consistently one of the most dangerous occupations in the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Attracting young people to the industry can’t be done just by lowering the legal age for interstate trucking, according to some in the industry.

“I don’t think it’s the silver bullet,” US Xpress Enterprises Inc. Chief Executive Eric Fuller told in a June interview the day the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based truck freight and logistics company had its initial public offering.

Lifestyle issues and working conditions also are a hurdle.

Trucker lifestyle

Driving diesel-powered 5-ton trucks is hard. Drivers have to follow federal rules and safety regulations, and, increasingly, onboard technology can track their every move.

Meanwhile, they are trying to make up as much time as they can on the road because they are only paid by the mile driven. Waiting for trucks to be loaded or unloaded can take hours and is unpaid time. Even some veteran truckers complain about mistreatment by workers such as company dispatchers and loading dock personnel.

And long-haul truckers, where the industry shortage is most acute, can be away from home for days, if not weeks. Truckers also must hunt for safe places to park for the night and sleep in their cabs.

To compete for qualified drivers, trucking companies have been increasing pay per mile and may even offer signing bonuses. But the industry’s high driver turnover rate, estimated by ATA at an annualized rate of 94 percent in the first quarter of the year for the biggest fleets, shows that truck drivers aren’t finding enough reasons to stay employed for long at any single trucking company.

The strong economy also has provided more job opportunities for young people without higher education. The construction industry, for example, pays well and a worker can be home each night.

For now, federal regulators are moving cautiously to study the safety impact of lowering the age of interstate truck drivers.

Under 21 pilot

The pilot program, which is designed and run by the Federal Motor Carrier Administration, was first published in 2016, with public comment solicited and received that fall.

Now, in June 2018, the agency has published its response to the comments and more details on how the pilot will work. A 60-day deadline for the next round of public comments is in place.

The three-year program will allow participating trucking companies to recruit a combined total of 200 active or reserve military personnel, under age 21, with heavy truck driving experience earned in the service.

Participating trucking companies also will have to find 200 experienced drivers — ages 21 through 24 — among their combined workforces to serve as the control group to compare safety data. The companies will collect safety data for both sets of drivers that the agency will analyze and share with Congress.

And as with any federal safety regulation waiver, the pilot program has to operate at safety levels at or above those achieved under the current 21-and-older driver rule.

That’s a high bar.

In the future, the trucker shortage might be solved by ongoing improvements in truck technology. Clean and quiet electric-powered trucks alone might attract younger, tech-savvy drivers to the industry. Range limits and the hub-and-spoke distribution systems they require might let drivers be home more often than traditional cross-country truckers, providing a better work-life balance.

Whether or not the trucking industry succeeds in getting Congress to lower the age limit for interstate truck drivers, it has acknowledged that that step alone won’t solve the truck driver shortage.

If the shortage continues to grow, lifestyle and working conditions also will have to improve in order to attract more drivers, no matter what their age.

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11 Responses

  1. Stephen

    The problem is low pay for the hours worked compared to other jobs out there. Younger driver should only be allowed in a team with a older driver over 22 with at least2 years experience. Most truck drivers are doing other jobs that either pay more money or better working conditions and more home time.

  2. Craig Vecellio

    Um, NO the trucking industry does NOT favorite this move, and the driver shortage is a lie. shippers on received theirs want this, so they can go back to paying drivers just barely minimum wage (or less) like they were a few years ago. we need to lose about another 10% of our labor base in order to bring the supply and demand ratios into balance, and bring freight rates up to par with the rest of the economy.

  3. Mark

    Your slug-line is a lie. The industry does NOT support any under-21 CDL drivers for interstate travel. It is simply irresponsible to cite only one source, the American Trucking Association, to back your claims. Those outside the industry simply look for the largest association and assume they represent the entire industry. Fact: The ATA is despised by the majority of professional drivers as the ATA does not speak to their issues. The ATA has an open history of only being the voice of those in jobs that do not directly involve a steering wheel. The big “Mega-Carriers”, who help fund the ATA, only represent 6% of the total driving force. SIX PERCENT. The other 94% of drivers wish the ATA would rename themselves so the confusion can stop. Shippers, Receivers, Freight Brokers, Freight Agents, and the Mega-Carriers is who the ATA speaks for. The vast majority of real Americans who do the REAL work of keeping this country moving, do NOT support the ATA nor the proposal to allow under-21 drivers for CDL interstate travel.

  4. Stephen

    The pay is too low truck taking other jobs in construction or the oil fields. Truck divers should make at least twice the federal minimum wage. Foreign drivers in the U.S. should make $22.00 us per hour plus overtime after 10 hour per day plus free medical insurance while on U.S soil. New drivers to the U.s. should have run with a more experience driver for 6 months

  5. Old Trucker

    I think most Americans favor SAFE drivers and TRAINED Drivers of any age.
    I for one after nearly five decades in the industry prefer Drivers who speak and articulate English well and agree that pay needs to be addressed. It isn’t necessarily the motor carriers reluctance to lay more, in my opinion, but the inherent impact on cost of goods produced and the ripple of higher freight rates on prices all will experience. (Inflation for the “foreign” drivers who may not be familiar with that English word).
    Pay increases go into rate hikes that then find their way into the price of a loaf of bread, a shirt or jacket, an appliance, or a bottle of Jack D.
    I still favor bettor Driver pay but also grasp the consequences.

  6. james

    First of all there is no driver shortage. There are plenty of quality drivers. But there is a shortage of people who are willing to be treated like crap while working for such low pay. The only people who would benefit from an 18 year old behind the wheel are the mega carriers. Truck insurance would go through the roof making it impossible for small business and owner operators to survive. When they hang up the keys there’s going to be an even bigger capacity crunch. The ELD mandate was the final straw that set things into motion. The industry is now reaping what it has sown. A few simple common sense rule changes could fix the problems we face. Teenagers behind the wheel isn’t the answer.

    • ken webster

      You are so right most truck drivers in Canada are doing other jobs. The ELD will only work if truck drivers are paid twice the state min wage for all hours worked . Only then talk about a truck driver shortage.

  7. Another old trucker

    They’re not allowed to drink legally at 18… they’re no longer (or soon to be) able to purchase guns at 18… but now the higher powers are considering putting an 18 year old behind an 80,000 pound bullet going down the highway… proof of more big government with there head up their ass…

  8. Dee Frasier

    The Industry in no way should be in favor of this. As badly as Professional Drivers are needed this is simply a irresponsible move on the Industry’s part. As a owner of a flatbed fleet I could not even imagine putting an inexperienced person on the road behind one of my trucks. The liability is tremendous and requires one to assure the general public that they feel safe with the Truck that is around, with that takes experience and knowledge.

  9. Rick

    I agree with everyone else on here.Putting a 18 year old behind the wheel of a 80000lb plus truck on wheels is a huge mistake.
    How about paying drivers what they deserve to be making like other professions(electricians.plumbers etc).make it a trade!
    Start paying overtime after 8hrs like other jobs.take away the stupid paid by mile bs
    The driver is paid per his going he wage right as soon as he/she arrived at the shipper.who works one except a truck driver.Get rid of this
    It never should be allowed on first place.But again it was one the big mega carriers who started it and all rest carriers jumped on board at the expense of the truck driver.
    It’s things like this is why the industry had issues.
    Correct the above issues.Then maybe you will fix a lot issues related to this industry.

  10. John holt

    I’ve been in this business sin e the late seventies and I’ve seen a lot in and around this business, the biggest problem I see as far as so called driver shortage is the trucking companies themselves, they put you in a truck governed at 63. 65 and so on that couldn’t pull a wet noodle out of a soup can then they want you to drive these trucks in faster surrounding traffic which is dangerous in itself,then the wanna put driver facing camera’s on you then they wanna pay that driver 26. 28 cents per mile and if a solo driver with these mega carriers might get 1800 , 2000 miles a week IF THEYRE LUCKY. My ?? To theses people is WHO IN THE HELL IN THEY’RE RIGHT MIND WHO WANNA DO IT with all these restrictions on the driver , then you gotta put up with crazy drivers in four wheelers then have to worry about the dam DOT. Aggravating the hell out of you everyday but my last thought is I don’t know of any 18 to 20 year old is responsible enough in a 4 wheeler much less a 80.000 pound killing machine


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