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 However, the industry is still losing many potential new, young drivers simply because of an outdated federal prohibition against crossing a state line until age 21.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.