Time to Let 18- to 21-Year-Old Truckers Cross State Lines

Written by Joe Rajkovacz, director of governmental affairs and communications for the Western States Trucking Association. This is one in a series of periodic guest columns by industry thought leaders.

At 18 I began driving tractor-trailers. The year was 1977 and I’d haul beer from Milwaukee’s many breweries to distributors within the state. I couldn’t cross a state line, though. Federal law said I was too young and by extension unsafe.

When I’d unload at a beer distributor in La Crosse and look across the Mississippi River to La Crescent, Minn., I thought about how ridiculous it was that somehow crossing over the I-90 bridge made me magically unsafe.

Fast forward over 40 years, and I spent nearly 30 of the last 40 years as a driver, accumulating 3.8 million accident-free miles operating throughout the U.S. and Canada. I had absolutely zero formal driver training when I began. I am self-taught. The owner of my first trucking company said I’d be out of a job if I didn’t learn how to at least hook-up a truck to a trailer and pull the rig into a service bay. I also drove a school bus on regular routes and charters throughout southeast Wisconsin, not a rural environment. That’s how my commercial driving career began. It isn’t much different than the pathway of many older veteran drivers.

Today the trucking industry has difficulty recruiting and retaining truck drivers. There are many reasons for this and way too much hyperbole blaming the situation solely on driver pay issues. Personally, the lifestyle of having to check out from having a “normal life” of being around friends and family is a huge drawback to many younger (and older) people. However, the industry is still losing many potential new, young drivers simply because of an outdated federal prohibition against crossing a state line until age 21.

California, which when it comes to trucking is one of the most highly regulated states in the nation, will allow an 18-year-old trucker to drive distances that are equivalent to crossing through multiple states in other regions. But the federal government prohibits the roughly 220-mile run from Boston to New York because the route cuts through four states.

There’s no indication that allowing younger truckers on the road has made California a more dangerous place to drive. An Insurance Institute for Highway Safety analysis of federal highway data found that California had 0.99 traffic deaths per 100 million vehicle miles traveled in 2016. That tied California as the 14th lowest rate among the 50 states.

California also has a lower rate of fatal crashes involving large trucks per total state vehicle miles traveled than the national, according to 2016 federal highway safety data — nearly 35 percent lower.  It also serves as a good test bed. With nearly 40 million residents, it has the highest population of any state. It is the most geographically diverse in the lower 48 and has among the most congested highways in the world.

At 18 I was single and unattached and had the wanderlust. I wanted to see the country. Being apart from friends and family wasn’t high on my list as a career disqualifier. Running around doing short-haul work didn’t have the same appeal as hitting the open road. If the trucking industry wants to become a viable career path for younger people, the restriction against crossing state lines needs to be removed.

HR 5358, the Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy or DRIVE Safe Act, introduced by Republican U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, would allow 18- to 21-year-old commercial driver’s license holders to cross state lines.

The bill establishes significant classroom and behind-the-wheel training requirements, much more than current entry-level driver training regulations. It establishes performance benchmarks and  specific requirements on the type of equipment to be operated. Trainees must be accompanied by an experienced driver during their apprenticing. These are exactly the kinds of requirements certain safety advocates and trade groups have always wanted but now oppose when it comes to allowing 18- to 21-year-old truck drivers to cross state lines.

Many of my peers either side of 60 years old argue against allowing 18 to 21 year olds to cross a state line in a truck. When we discuss our personal experiences of entering the industry, I hear the usual refrain: “It was a different time and we were more mature.” Really? The Wisconsin of the 1970s allowed 18 year olds to go to bars and taverns. I was anything but a saint with that freedom and was no different than most of my peers.

It’s ironic that many opponents of this bill hail from my generation and refer to younger people as kids. Two of my children serve in the military and were deployed in combat zones last year. They served with other “kids” in the most dangerous environments our country asks. Name calling is offensive to young people and ignores those who are deserving of greater opportunities.

Many opponents of this bill cite safety data gleaned from the general driving population of 18 to 21 year olds, not specific to CDL holders. My personal experience tells me that at this age you are keenly aware that any crash will end your truck driving career.

Another reason often cited to oppose lifting the restriction is economics. Many say access to a younger market is all about chasing lower-cost drivers. This argument is a red herring. It doesn’t matter at what age one decides to get their first CDL.  Whether a new driver is 18 or 50, they will be paid less initially. If someone at 18 has to wait until they’re in their early  20s in order to begin a trucking career, the economic effect is exactly the same.

Many high school graduates do not go on to college. HR 5358 would give 18 to 21 year olds a pathway to enter an industry under a very controlled process that would result in excellent, safe, well trained drivers.

Editor’s note: Joe Rajkovacz is director of governmental affairs and communications for the Western States Trucking Association based in Upland, Calif. His background includes spending nearly 30 years as an active driver before spending the past 12 years working as an association representative in the trucking industry.

Read Next: Trucking Industry Favors Teen Drivers Over No Drivers

12 Responses

  1. Jeromy Hodges

    I see a lot of truck drivers in their 20’s driving like they would in their car, feet up on the dash, texting, etc. We don’t need teenagers behind the wheel of trucks.

    It is also a lifestyle that will result in even worse turnover because teenagers do not want to be away from home and family for extended periods of time and once they get a taste of the lifestyle, they’ll quit and go back home. I’ve trained many people in their 20’s who did that once they found out what it’s really like. Not the glorified life they thought it would be.

    Even thinking that somehow hiring teenagers will help the driver shortage is pretty ridiculous.

    Companies should start doing what it takes to get retention levels a lot higher and they wouldn’t have a problem. Companies know exactly what needs to be done, and it is a lot more than better pay, but as long as there are warm bodies to put in the seat, regardless of how long those people stay, they will not worry about retention.

    Sorry if I have no sympathy for the companies, but their decisions that result in high turnover are intentional decisions and the revolving door is of their making and completely in their control to fix if that’s what the really want (which isn’t what they really want), but they know that. They will do anything not to have to change how they do things regarding drivers, and this push for younger drivers is just another ploy.

    • Richard

      It’s ridiculous. From here we can be in 30 miles and 4 counties in 35 miles at most. Perfect example of the swamp. People making laws with no idea about what they are doing

  2. John holt

    The younger people in my day growing up was raised with mentally of work and respect, the KIDS today don’t have that responsibility and want everything handed to them.kids today do not wanna do anything but sit and play video games and live off of mommy and daddy , theses KIDS TODAY are not responsible enough to be turned loose in a big truck much less a four wheeler, accident rates will go through the roof if this is passed and the government and these trucking companies that allow this will have blood on they’re hands

    • Aaron wilson

      You’re getting all this from your head, and you have no experience with teens these days. You’re acting as if every teen is exactly the same. Not every teen plays video games all the time, that’s only streamers from twitch who wouldn’t even think about trucking as their future career.

  3. John Gritman

    I’m not a driver but my son in law is. He is an independent owner/operator and very careful with his driving and equipment. When he comes home, and often on the road, he washes his truck and trailer and that includes the engine compartment. His truck expressed its appreciation recently. There was a pinhole leak in one of the air springs and it sent the water right back in his face! But on a serious note, those below 21 who have served in the military, no question they should be able to drive. The military still takes boys and makes men out of them. They are disciplined and mature; easy to pick out in a crowd. Boys that come from “blue collar” and farm families also have the discipline and work ethic. BUT if the boys come from upper-middle-class families and have not had to do work hard with their hands and just want to see the country – NO. I have been on my own since 17 and had to do any available job; you name it, I’ve done it. I have an undergraduate degree and studied at the graduate and post-graduate level. I would not ride with some of my classmates! I see the bulldozers, road graders and other oversized, overweight loads he carries, their will need to be some limitations there.

  4. Alan Caviness

    You can’t compare 1977 trucking to 2018 trucking. Many, many changes. One of the biggest is generational gap. An average 18 year old today is spoiled, on video games most of the day, and has no motivation. With that said I believe there are some 18 year olds out there that can learn trucking. You have to decide which ones can do it. Extended truck driver training, driver training/mentoring are options. Most 18 year olds are not mature to even understand the finality of death, i.e. Look at the crash rate 18 year olds.

    Also, California I see one thing. Have you seem the demographics from FMCSA and Vigillo where most truck traffic is……….? East Coast… I-95 corridor, Allentown, PA., New England. Truck traffic in all of California is no comparison to East Coast truck trucking.

    18-21 year olds? Figure out a way to tame them.

  5. Walter D. Burnett

    I absolutely disagree with the idea of allowing 18-21 year old drivers to run interstate. It’s a bad enough they are driving intrastate. During my career, I’d met many a young, so-called drivers. Of the majority, they were and are egotistical, moronic “Kings of the Road” with attitudes such as, “get out of my way, or I’ll run you over.” There were a few, of whom I perceived to have possession of common sense, good work ethic, safety awareness, etc. But by-in-large, this group consisted of those who came from whole families, who raised their children by Gods standards, not the bureaucratic socialist “government” standards. If we become a country without drivers, I see this a better option than people in body bags all over the highways.

  6. James

    No, it is not time for teenagers to cross state lines. The last thing we need is some kid running OTR . I know the ATA dousch bags are pushing for it that doesn’t mean the rest of the industry thinks it’s good idea. The ATA does not speak for or represent me. If you want to know what the industry thinks try talking to some drivers and OOIDA members.

  7. John

    In Canada we have been fighting for over 20 years to have a nationwide minimum entry-level training course for new drivers. You can get your Class 3 (straight trucks) at 18 and your Class 1 or CDL at 19. Currently our Federal Government allows each province to set its own standards for driver training. This makes little sense at all as a driver who has lived on the prairies his whole life and taken his/her training there is legal to drive over the Rockies with a fully loaded b-train in the middle of the winter with no mountain training.

  8. ken webster

    We need to look at truck drivers and why they are doing other jobs today and compare that to 1980. No company should be able to bring more than 5 drivers and or truck repairers in one year until their average truck driver makes $27.00 per hour and teck makes $32.00 per hour plus a$2.00 per hour tool allowance. All new drivers( or new to Canada) must spend 1000 hours with a truck driver of 5 or driving truck .

  9. Aaron wilson

    Whoever thinks teens these days only care about video games and snapchat have no knowledge or experience around teens. When they see some teenager streaming on twitch playing a video game, they automatically think that every other teenager is the same. They need to learn that not every teenager is the same. There are some 18 year olds who have already gotten their CDL and are willing to work with their hands, but can’t find anyone that will hire them.


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