Proposed legislation to test letting people as young as 18 years old drive big rigs interstate is exposing a divide in the trucking sector, where companies are having trouble finding workers for the grueling job of hauling goods over long distances.
A provision in the infrastructure bill the Senate approved in August would set up a pilot program allowing 18- to 20-year-olds to drive tractor-trailers across state lines. Most states allow people under 21 to get commercial driver’s licenses, but federal rules restrict those drivers to working within state borders.
Some in the industry say the measure could help expand the pool of available drivers. But others say it wouldn’t address core problems that cause people to leave trucking for other blue-collar work such as construction. Those issues include demanding work conditions and pay too low to compensate for the long hours behind the wheel and time away from home.
“If you’ve got holes in the bucket, no matter how much water you put in the top of the bucket, if it’s running out as fast at the bottom as it is at the top, you haven’t really resolved that issue,” said Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents independent owners of single trucks and small fleets.
The association says there is no true shortage of drivers, as many trucking companies contend. In a recent letter to Commerce Secretary Gina
Raimondo, the group said that hundreds of thousands of people get commercial driver’s licenses each year and that driver turnover, not supply, is the problem, as new entrants try out the business and leave for other work.
The American Trucking Associations, another trade body that represents trucking companies, hopes the pilot program will demonstrate that young people can safely drive tractor-trailers interstate, said Bill Sullivan, its executive vice president of advocacy.
Proponents of lowering the federal age limit say that plenty of young commercial-driver’s-license holders already drive long distances within large states like Texas and California and that the proposed apprenticeship program’s required 400 hours of training would add another layer of safety beyond what is needed to get a commercial license.
Highway-safety advocates warn that supervision on long routes is lax and that putting young drivers in big rigs will make roads more dangerous. They cite an analysis by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety showing that teenagers are far likelier to crash than older drivers.
“They call it a pilot program, but it’s basically a foot in the door to change the rules for their imaginary driver shortage,” said Russ Swift, a board member of the Truck Safety Coalition advocacy group whose son died in 1993 in an accident in which a truck driven by an 18-year-old got stuck on a road after an attempted U-turn.
Trucking employment fell sharply at the start of the coronavirus pandemic last year and was still below pre-pandemic levels this summer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some industries have pointed to the dearth of truck drivers as a drag on their ability to restock and recover from the pandemic downturn and many transport operators say the halting rebound in trucking jobs highlights longstanding problems they have had in recruiting and retaining drivers.
This article originally appeared on Wall Street Journal