People as young as 18 will soon be allowed to drive commercial trucks carrying tons of cargo across state lines under a federal apprenticeship pilot program that is intended to train thousands of new drivers.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a branch of the Transportation Department, outlined details for the program last week, setting up training procedures and vehicle safety technology requirements.
During the pilot program, which can last up to three years, as many as 3,000 young truckers at a time will be required to complete 400 hours of cumulative probationary time with an experienced driver in the passenger seat. After that, until they turn 21, they will be able to drive solo but under continuous monitoring by trucking companies.
The legal age for truckers who drive across state lines is currently 21, but those 18 and over can drive commercial trucks within state lines everywhere in the country except Hawaii.
Apprentices under probation must drive trucks with forward-facing video cameras and active braking collision mitigation systems and must stay under 65 mph.
The program is part of a $1 trillion bill, signed into law by President Joe Biden on Nov. 15, to modernize the nation’s aging infrastructure. Hundreds of millions were allocated for investments like expanding high-speed internet access, developing transportation programs and improving roads and bridges.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was assigned to start the pilot truck-driving program within 60 days after the infrastructure bill was signed into law, a deadline that has now passed. A start date for the pilot program has not been announced.
Trade groups, including the American Trucking Associations, said that the pilot program would provide a much-needed boost for the industry. A declining driver workforce, a perennial issue for the trucking industry, grew worse during the pandemic, said Nick Geale, a vice president at the American Trucking Associations, who also referred to continuing concerns over supply chain shortages.
“We are very concerned about our ability to continue to deliver to the entire country,” Geale said.
The industry moved 10.23 billion tons of freight in 2020, a 13% drop from the previous year, according to an analysis by the American Trucking Associations. From 2019 to 2020, the number of truck drivers in the country also dropped by about 7% to a little over 3 million.
The pilot program is not an overnight solution, but it will introduce drivers to the workforce earlier and more safely, Geale said, noting that the average age of a truck driver was 37.
Some safety advocates say that the program is ill-advised and that lowering the age limit for truck drivers would fail to address longstanding aspects of the trade that fuel driver turnover, such as grueling work schedules and inadequate safety technology in trucks. They say that teenage drivers will present a much higher risk than those who have been driving for longer, citing research finding that younger truck drivers had higher crash rates.
“This really is a Band-Aid on top of a deep wound, and it’s also a self-inflicted wound,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. “There is not a truck driver shortage issue; there is a truck driver retention issue.”
As the pilot program begins, Chase said, she hopes that her worst fears about teenage drivers causing preventable fatalities will not be realized.
“We think that putting one of the most dangerous driving populations — teenagers — behind the wheel of 80,000-pound trucks will imperil not only the teen truckers themselves,” Chase said, “but everyone on earth with them.”