America's retiring baby boomers are creating a shortage of truck drivers. Two congressmen are proposing to fix that by lowering the legal age for interstate trucking from 21 to 18. The industry is cheering, but safety proponents are not.
WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have proposed a way to ease America’s trucker shortage: allow certified teenage drivers to cross state lines in their 18-wheelers.
The bill, from Reps. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., and Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., would scrap a federal rule that bans younger-than-21 drivers from transporting goods outside the state in which they’re licensed, lowering the legal age to 18.
“If you’re old enough to join the Marine Corps, you can get the training to do this,” Hunter told The Washington Post. “I think we should expect more out of our younger generation, not less.”
Industry leaders have praised the proposal, which mandates extra supervision and a speed cap of 65 mph for younger trainees. As baby boomers retire in droves, they say filling vacancies is increasingly difficult.
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Expanding the talent pool, they argue, could help employers keep costs down, while offering applicants with a high-school diploma a chance to earn a $60,000 salary shortly after graduation.
But safety groups have slammed the plan, arguing that long-haul rides are riskier for drivers with less experience. Henry Jasny, vice president and general counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a group that works to reduce highway accidents, said teenagers need more time to master 80,000-pound vehicles.
“Younger drivers have higher crash rates,” Jasny said. “We have concerns about younger people who have less experience and less judgment going from state to state, from rural to urban areas.”
Even if they’re licensed to drive in Virginia and want to be able to work in, say, Maryland, he added.
There is limited data on the safety records of 18- to 21-year-old truck drivers, but studies suggest that, among the general population, the youngest drivers are the most dangerous.
Those ages 16 to 19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are nearly three times more likely than people 20 and older to fatally crash. And while they represent 7 percent of the population, they’re linked to 11 percent of motor-vehicle-injury costs, government data shows. (The fatality risk for men in this age group, meanwhile, was twice as high as their female counterparts.)
Industry groups assert that proper training would mitigate these risks and eventually build a fleet of safer truckers, who can get licensed to drive within a particular state by age 18.
“We need to get younger people involved in a safe structure,” said John Tracy, executive chairman of Dot Foods, which employs about 1,300 truck drivers nationwide. “That will help us increase the supply of drivers, and they’ll get more training and safer technology.”
As of today, driving — a category that includes truck driving — is the country’s deadliest occupation, according to the latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The bill’s authors say providing more mentorship and smart equipment at an earlier age could reduce the number of future accidents.
The measure, introduced last week in Washington, would require teenagers to log 400 hours of on-duty driving and 240 hours of working with an experienced driver in the passenger seat before getting licensed to cross state lines.
Trucks would also be outfitted with automatic brakes, video cameras and a device that keeps speed below 65 mph.
The lawmakers’ push to lower the age limit comes as trucking companies across the country say they struggle to fill openings as the labor market tightens and baby boomers flock toward retirement. (The average age for a truck driver in the United States is 55.)
The American Trucking Associations said in a recent report the industry needs to add almost 1 million new drivers by 2024 to keep up with demand.
Some employers have raised wages, started offering 401(k) benefits and launched efforts to recruit women, who make up just 6 percent of the nation’s drivers.
Donald Lefeve, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Training Association, a national trade group, said broadening the talent pool for cross-country drivers is the logical next step.
“Trucking is unable to compete against other professions to attract younger talent because of arbitrary age restrictions that were put in place in 1937,” he said in an email. “Every state in the Lower 48 allows someone who holds an intrastate [license] to drive within their borders. We should let them be able to cross state lines.”