Trucking industry pushes teen drivers to fill big rig shortage

Trucking groups are backing legislation that would allow truck drivers younger than 21 years old to cross state borders to help fill a driver shortage, as safety groups argue younger drivers are more likely to be involved in fatal accidents and that the bill’s training requirements are inadequate.
Most states allow 18-year-olds to obtain a commercial driver’s license, yet federal law prevents them from driving outside state borders until they are 21.
But legislation introduced in March by Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Trey Hollingsworth of Indiana called the Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy Act would allow teens to drive between states after completing a 400-hour training program.

“Unfortunately, we see many young Americans faced with the choice of either taking on thousands of dollars in college debt or entering into a job market with grim prospects for untrained workers,” Hunter said.
“This is a common-sense approach that creates job opportunities for younger workers and provides a vital resource to America’s trucking industry that is critical in supporting our growing domestic economy,” he added.
Under the legislation, younger drivers would have to meet the requirements to obtain a commercial driver's license. Then, they would receive training that would include two probationary periods, when they would be permitted to drive outside state lines accompanied by an experienced driver.
The younger truck drivers must complete a 120-hour probationary period of “on-duty time,” in which 80 of those hours must be spent driving. Then, they must undergo a second 280-hour probationary period when the teen must drive for a total of 160 hours.
Companies and organizations including UPS, the International Foodservice Distributors Association, and American Trucking Associations support the legislation, referred to as the DRIVE Safe Act, because of the additional training, and argue it would expand the recruitment pool to help alleviate a truck driver shortage.
The American Trucking Associations predicted in October that the industry would lack about 50,000 truck drivers by the end of 2017 and 174,000 drivers by 2026 if current trends continue.
The group also has argued that over the next 10 years, 890,000 new truck drivers must be brought into the industry, given certain factors such as retirement, retention, and demand.
“It’s still a challenge for our industry to recruit talent,” said Sean McNally, vice president of public affairs and the press secretary for American Trucking Associations. “By bringing the age of interstate driving down from 21 to 18, it is our hope that in addition to providing better training and providing a pathway to a career for individuals, that we’ll be able to capture that gap.
“You graduate high school at 17, 18, 19 years old, you’re still two years away from being able to essentially work in our industry,” McNally said. “In that time period, individuals find other jobs, they find other career paths, they move on to other things. So, it’s a missed opportunity for our industry.”
McNally compared the program to an apprenticeship or internship program.
“It doesn’t just let you get your license, give you the keys, and send you on your way,” McNally said.
However, safety groups such as Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety are fighting the legislation because younger drivers are more likely to be involved with fatal crashes. Drivers between the ages of 16 and 19 were nearly three times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than those older than 20 in 2015, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Peter Kurdock, director of regulatory affairs at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, also notes that drivers of large trucks between the ages of 19 to 21 were six times more likely to be involved in fatal accidents compared to the overall rate for all truck drivers, according to a 1991 study that was published in the public health journal Accident Analysis & Prevention. Those under the age of 19 were four times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes than the overall rate.
Kurdock says the training requirements in the legislation are not adequate to ensure a new truck driver can properly operate a commercial motor vehicle, adding that they're not a substitute for experience and would not alleviate safety concerns.
“We are talking about really some significant public safety concerns with this bill,” Kurdock said.
During the probationary training periods, teen truck drivers must meet certain benchmarks, in which they are evaluated on matters including speed and space management, right and left turns, and night driving. But meeting the benchmarks is subject to the employer’s satisfaction, which Kurdock said is cause for concern.
“It’s up to the carrier if one of these younger drivers has a moving violation, or a speeding ticket, or a crash, whether they continue to allow them to operate the truck,” Kurdock said. “Those are some really large flaws if you, like us, are looking from a public safety lens.”
Additionally, Kurdock pushes back on claims the trucking industry is facing recruitment challenges. He says the industry actually is struggling to keep drivers.
“It doesn’t matter how many kids they sucker into driving these trucks; it’s not going to relieve the shortage because they’re all going to leave,” Kurdock said. “None of these people stay in this job because the industry refuses to change the working conditions and make it a job that people want to stay in.”
Past efforts aimed at evaluating younger truck drivers included a provision in the 2015 Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act that urged the Department of Transportation to start a pilot program studying drivers under 21 in interstate commerce. The program has not launched yet and would apply only to military personnel whose military occupation classification is a truck driver.
The American Trucking Associations has sent a letter to Hunter supporting the legislation, noting that an 18-year-old truck driver could drive 500 miles in from San Diego to Sacramento but could not drive 30 miles from Truckee, Calif., to Reno, Nev.
“This is a going to be a big thing for us, and we really encourage for this to be looked at seriously,” McNally said.

But Kurdock thinks other truck driver groups will become vocal in opposing the legislation.
“I think you’re going to hear from a lot of groups that have serious concerns with this bill,” Kurdock said.
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