WASHINGTON — A federal agency is proposing a pilot program to allow people as young as 18 to drive trucks across the country, an idea enthusiastically supported by trucking companies as a way to open the door to recruitment in high schools but facing deep opposition from safety organizations that say it will lead to immature drivers causing more crashes.
The idea of lowering the age limit for interstate truckers has been around for at least two decades. It has gained traction in recent years, with a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress proposing legislation in addition to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration pilot program.
Bill Sullivan, executive vice president for advocacy at the American Trucking Associations, said companies see an opportunity to open a new path for workers without a college degree and to reduce instability in their workforce.
“The reason that we want to reach people at the beginning of their work life is so we can present a career in trucking that can support their life and career over a longer period of time,” Sullivan said.
But major safety organizations have rallied in opposition to the plan, arguing that data shows drivers younger than 21 are far more dangerous on the roads.
“Beta testing on public roadways where everyone is imperiled is not the safest way to test this science experiment,” said Cathy Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.
Forty-nine states and Washington D.C. allow drivers under 21 to obtain commercial driver’s licenses, but they are prohibited from crossing state lines. Interstate driving is essential in many trucking jobs and supporters of lifting the restriction say it’s illogical to allow a teenager to drive a truck across a big state like Texas while confining others to a small state like Rhode Island.
The legislation has the support of 145 members of the House and 36 senators, mostly Republicans. The bills have not moved forward since being introduced last year.
The federal trucking agency is reviewing comments on the proposal and it’s not clear when the program could begin. The incoming Biden administration could decide to scrap or substantially revise the idea.
Orestes Reyes, 19, the son of a truck driver, got his commercial license at 18 and now owns a truck. He said he has turned down jobs that would require him to cross from his home state of Florida into Georgia.
“Really frustrating not being able to cross state border after I drive 11 hours inside Florida,” he wrote in an instant message.
A group representing the trucking industry asked the federal government to launch a pilot program in 2000, but the idea didn’t move forward. In 2016, Congress told the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to conduct a pilot with drivers aged 18-20 who had military truck driving training. But few people leave the military at such a young age and the program has struggled to attract qualified drivers.
In 2019, the agency proposed a broader pilot and this past fall published a design for a three-year program.
The agency said it would seek to recruit at least 200 drivers, and they would be required to carry out 240 hours of driving as part of a probationary period or already have a year and 25,000 miles of experience driving within state borders. Participants wouldn’t be allowed to drive buses or haul hazardous materials.
The proposal also includes requirements for technologies like automatic breaking, video cameras that record the driver and speed-limiting devices set at 65 mph.
To gauge their success, the younger drivers would be compared against a group between the ages of 21 and 24.
But in formal comments on the idea, Robert L. Sumwalt, chairperson of the National Transportation Safety Board, questioned the design of the program. Older drivers would not be subject to the same limitations and technology requirements and the restrictions would mean the participants would not be representative of the industry as a whole.
Sumwalt acknowledged labor supply issues in the industry, but added, “the NTSB does not believe that allowing an age group of drivers who are consistently overrepresented in crash involvement and who might not yet have the cognitive maturity to safely operate commercial vehicles interstate is the right solution to these problems.
He continued: “Any solution should come without creating significant safety risk to the rest of the motoring public.”
While several industry organizations support the idea, truckers are not uniformly behind the plan. A group representing independent drivers says it shares safety concerns and worries that opening the door to younger truckers would primarily benefit big fleets.
Jay Grimes, director of regulatory affairs for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, said lowering the age limit is an effort by big companies to secure access to a new labor pool while sidestepping concerns about bad pay and working conditions.
“That’s their motivation,” Grimes said.
Sullivan, of the American Trucking Associations, framed the issue differently: He said truck drivers typically get their start in their 30s after not finding a fit in another field. But by that time they are more likely to have kids and face additional strains in entry-level jobs that require long spells on the road.
“People float in and out of truck driving and it’s a fairly high turnover,” Sullivan said.
The age limit proposal is part of what Chase’s group sees as an effort by the Trump administration to chip away at safety protections in trucking. The trucking agency changed rules on the hours drivers can work, which Chase said will lead to more tired drivers and has delayed the implementation of new training standards.
Chase said she could support lowering the age limit “if there was ever any independent research that we had confidence that it was safe for teen truckers to travel on interstates roads.”
But Sullivan faulted groups like Chase’s for being intransigent. The industry supports safety, he said, because it’s good for business.
“The people who are squealing about safety aren’t coming to the table to figure it out,” he said.