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 Trucks.com 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.
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.