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Young Woman Truck Driver

Are Younger Truck Drivers Safe?

Sept. 15, 2020
FMCSA pilot program for 18- to 20-year-olds tests the notion that they are.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has launched a pilot program to explore just how safe drivers between the ages of 18 and 21 years old can be when driving heavy-duty trucks.

The three-year program will allow 200 younger drivers to participate if they have operated commercial motor vehicles (CMVs) in intrastate commerce for at least a year and 25,000 miles.

Another group could be hired directly by trucking operations to drive in interstate commerce with sufficient training and supervision. Both groups must serve a 280-hour probationary period (including 120 hours of driving time) under an apprenticeship program established by an employer.

To be eligible for the program, a study group driver must have no disqualifications, suspensions or license revocations within the past two years and not be under any out-of-service (OOS) order.

He or she also cannot have been convicted of any safety-related violation, including reckless driving and driving under the influence. A driver may be removed from the program if disqualified for a major offense, serious traffic violation, railroad-highway grade crossing, or violation of an OOS order.

The study group drivers also would not be allowed to operate vehicles hauling passengers or hazardous materials or drive special configuration vehicles. Those participating in the program also would be required to operate trucks the carrier has equipped with active braking collision-mitigation systems, forward-facing video event capture and speed limiters that are set to 65 mph.

Although not required, FMCSA said it would also prioritize approval for participation in the program for those motor carriers that choose to equip their vehicles with additional technologies, such as various collision avoidance systems and lane centering.

FMCSA Deputy Administrator Wiley Deck commented, “This action will allow the agency to carefully examine the safety, feasibility and possible economic benefits of allowing 18- to 20-year-old drivers to operate in interstate commerce. Safety is always FMCSA’s top priority, so we encourage drivers, motor carriers and interested citizens to review this proposed new pilot program and share their thoughts and opinions.”

The trucking industry has advocated for the ability to use younger drivers ever since the 1980s when the driver shortage was first identified as a looming crisis. At that time, the industry had been restricted from recruiting drivers under the age of 25, even when they were allowed to do so by law because insurers refused to cover drivers under that age.

Younger drivers were allowed in intrastate operations, which is where many of them had to get their experience before being allowed to drive in interstate service. The industry argued that age restriction hampered recruiting because by the time they become age eligible, most young people already had chosen a different career. Insurers eventually relented on the 25-year limit, but the minimum age for holding a commercial drivers’ license (CDL) remains 21.

FMCSA was only able to identify two insurance companies that would cover professional drivers under 21, but expects many of the carriers who will hire them also self-insure.

Confronting Mixed Opinions

The new program follows one implemented in 2018 that was called for by Congress in the 2015 Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. That program allows 18- to 20-year-olds who possess the U.S. military equivalent of a CDL to drive trucks in interstate commerce.

American Trucking Associations has strongly backed the military program and ATA also supports the Drive SAFE Act, a bill pending in Congress—but which has not yet passed—that calls for implementation of an apprenticeship program for licensed commercial motor vehicle drivers under the age of 21 almost exactly like the one FMCSA has proposed.

ATA President Chris Spear hailed the new pilot program’s launch: “This is a significant step toward improving safety on our nation’s roads, setting a standard for these drivers that is well beyond what 49 states currently require. This is an amazing block of talent with unlimited potential.”

ATA Chairman Randy Guillot, president of Triple G Express and Southeastern Motor Freight, added, “As an industry, we need to find new ways to connect with potential new drivers. By providing young people the opportunity to fully participate in the financially rewarding and dynamic world of trucking, we will be in a better position to bring in a new generation of valuable talent to our industry.”

After FMCSA proposed creating this under-21 apprenticeship program for civilian drivers in May 2019, it proved to be quite controversial, drawing criticism from public safety advocates and from such industry quarters as the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) and the Teamsters union.

OOIDA has argued strenuously that there are better and safer ways to fill the shrinking ranks of professional truck drivers, asserting that if the industry increased pay and benefits it would find it much easier to fill its ranks.

“OOIDA also fears that younger drivers will be subject to inadequate working conditions and be used to maintain a cheap labor supply that will only result in higher driver turnover rates rather than long-term careers in the industry,” said  Jay Grimes, the organization’s director of federal affairs “We believe the agency should be working to reverse the increasing trend of crashes and promoting policies that help make trucking a rewarding, sustainable profession. This pilot program accomplishes neither of those objectives.”

Teamsters General President James Hoffa pointed out that in the FAST Act, Congress told FMCSA it could loosen the age restraint for the pilot test program inaugurated in 2018, but only in a highly controlled manner that exclusively relies on participation of veterans and other members of the military.

“That safeguard was an important step towards counteracting the enormous safety risks inherent with having teenagers running tractor-trailers across long distances,” Hoffa stressed. “Ignoring that decision and unilaterally deciding to explore a much broader pilot program represents a dismissive wave of the hand to the will of Congress.”

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