During a February Senate hearing, a new bill allowing commercial drivers below the age of 21 to drive trucks between states was met with a huge endorsement.
Chris Spear, President of American Trucking Associations, gave the legislation his enthusiastic approval. The bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana, would reduce the age requirement for interstate commercial driving from 21 to 18.
“It’s really not about age,” he said at the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing. “It’s about training.” He explained the measure would also help the industry improve its overall truck driver shortage. “This is a step toward safety.”
If the bill is passed, it would also bring new criteria for training. One requirement would include at least 400 hours of on-duty time and 240 hours of driving time with an experienced operator. The trucks operated during these training sessions would need to be equipped with active braking systems, forward-facing video recorders, and speed governors capping speeds at 65 mph.
The DRIVE Safe Act was filed in both the Senate by Senators Todd Young (R-Indiana) and Jon Tester (D-Montana), and the House by Representatives Trey Hollingsworth (R-Indiana) and Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). The act works to fight the issue of driver shortages, and specifies that an apprentice driver would need to complete 120 hours of on-duty time, and that at least 80 hours of that must be in a commercial vehicle.
In addition, an employer would need to deem an apprentice competent in every type of traffic, safety awareness, lane control, speed and space management, right and left turns, mirror scanning, and complying with Hours-of-Service regulations.
The ATA has been a strong supporter of the legislation and has argued that it would help the industry bring in a new pool of prospective drivers. Currently, federal law prohibits truckers under 21 from crossing state lines, although 48 states allow drivers of at least 18 years to operate Class 8 trucks within their states.
“This bill reinforces a culture of safety far and above current standards to provide the next generation of drivers with the critical skills they need to operate a truck safely on our nation’s highways,” said International Foodservice Distributor Association president, Mark Allen.
Spear argued that for drivers at age 18 to be allowed to drive long distances intrastate made it plausible to allow them to move interstate. He also explained that it makes little sense to allow military personnel between the ages of 18 and 21 to operate heavy machinery and then disallow them to truck from state to state.
“How are we willing to allow 18-year-olds to go off and do that, but we can’t teach them how to cross state lines in a Class 9 [truck]? This bill is responsible. It’s safety-minded. It’s the right thing to do,” Spear said. He continued to emphasize the bill’s outline of drivers’ training requirements.
Although bill sponsors and the ATA both brought up the new safety requisites, it seems their biggest concern is the long-reported shortage of truck drivers.
“We have this substantial driver shortage in this country,” said Young. “And, progressively this threatens the long-term economic stability of our country. We want to maintain this longest period of economic expansion in American history.”
Dawn King of the Truck Safety Coalition questioned the legislation and its main focus of solving the shortage, claiming safety didn’t seem to be a real concern.
“There is ample research showing that teen drivers have significantly higher crash rates and are much less safe than older drivers,” she said. “There is absolutely no evidence that introducing teen drivers will in any way improve safety.”
Additionally, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, Lewie Pugh, brought up the widely-believed claim that “there is no driver shortage.”
The ATA currently claims that the industry short 61,000 truck drivers, and must hire 1.1 million more within the next decade to meet industry demand. Spear also brought up the ATA’s support of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s proposed relaxation of hours-of-service rules, saying “New flexibilities should be based on sound evidence and sufficient data to ensure safety.”
There has also been strong pushback against hours-of-service regulation changes, with opposers explaining the dangers of allowing truckers to have more freedom during mandatory rest times and longer periods of driving, as fatigue is a major factor in a many fatal truck crashes.
“In Illinois, you can’t even drive a car without restrictions until you turn 18,” commented Jay Stefani, “but we’re supposed to believe those same teenaged drivers are suddenly experienced and competent enough to operate an 80,000-pound tractor-trailer at highway speeds? Driver shortfalls are certainly an issue, but perhaps the ATA should consider increasing interest by supporting higher wages for interstate truckers.”