Trump backs pilot program to permit 18- to 20-year-olds to drive heavy trucks in interstate commerce

Department of Transportation will launch a pilot program to permit 18-to-20 year-olds who possess the U.S. military equivalent of a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to operate large trucks in interstate commerce.

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Is allowing 18-to-20 year-olds to drive an 80,000-pound truck in interstate commerce the solution to the driver shortage? The Trump administration thinks so.

Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao, joined Sen. Deb Fischer, R- Neb., and Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., to announce that the Department of Transportation will launch a pilot program to permit 18-to-20 year-olds who possess the U.S. military equivalent of a commercial driver’s license (CDL) to operate large trucks in interstate commerce.

“This program will allow our veterans and reservists to translate their extensive training into good-paying jobs operating commercial vehicles safely across the country, while also addressing the nationwide driver shortage,” Chao said in a statement

As directed by Section 5404 of the Fixing America's Surface Transportation (FAST) Act, the DOT said its pilot program will grant “a limited number” of individuals between the ages of 18 and 20 to operate large trucks in interstate commerce – provided they possess the military equivalent of a CDL and are sponsored by a participating trucking company.

It is unclear exactly how many 18-to-20 year-olds will participate. The notice of proposed rulemaking issued by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration says it is seeking “200 drivers from at least 70 trucking companies” to participate in the pilot. The safety record of those 200 under-21 drivers will be compared with those of a control group of 200 other drivers to see whether the program will be continued or expanded.

In its notice of the proposal, FMCSA admitted “there may be an experience gap” between the skills of an experienced, over-21 truck driver and the under-21 military types who may take advantage of this experiment.

“The motor carriers that participate in the pilot program are responsible for training the covered drivers on (regulations) to ensure the program’s drivers are in compliance,” the FMCSA notice said.

There are no specific studies on the rates of crashes involving licensed truck drivers under 21 currently involved in intrastate driving. However, in the past whenever the chance of allowing 18-20 year-olds to operate in interstate commerce has arisen, the Teamsters union, Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH), Public Citizen, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) have all joined forces with rail interests to defeat the measure on Capitol Hill.

With Republicans in charge of all three branches now, that could change.

The under-21 pilot program was announced late in the afternoon on July 3—perhaps to coincide with Fourth of July or perhaps to announce it when most folks are not concentrating on the fine print of the Federal Register.

“As our nation prepares to celebrate Independence Day, Secretary Chao and I were excited to highlight a program I helped champion to provide truck driver jobs to young veterans,” said Sen. Fischer said in a statement.

Rep. Bacon call it an “innovative program” that offers a way for our younger veterans and reservists to transition to the civilian workforce.

During the pilot program, which is slated to run for three years, the safety records of these drivers will be compared to the records of a control group of drivers.

Before the pilot program can start, FMCSA is required by federal statute to allow a public comment period. That will be followed by the agency’s published responses in the Federal Register.

This move comes in spite of the fact that:

  • Trucking remains one of the 10 most dangerous professions in America, according to the Occupational and Health Safety Administration (OSHA);
  • Being a commercial truck driver is nearly eight times as deadly as being a law enforcement officer, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics; and
  • Teenagers 16-to-19 are three times more likely to be involved in a fatal car accident, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

In an industry where 100 percent driver turnover is common, having a core group of drivers who've stayed with the company for two decades is a pretty rare and remarkable feat. Recently, CFI, a leading North America full-truckload carrier and subsidiary TFI International, recognized 140 veteran drivers for 2 million miles of service and 20 or more consecutive years of service with the company.

"We take tremendous pride in creating a family environment where we are focused on the needs of our drivers as the foundation to consistently superior service," Greg Orr, CFI's president, said in a statement. "There is no better example of our commitment to be a great place for professional truck drivers than those who have careers with CFI surpassing 20 or more years. 

Few trucking executives contacted wanted to speak on the record on under-21 controversial topic, or perhaps run the risk of offending President Donald J. Trump in the process. However, one industry insider contacted by LM was skeptical of the program.

“The problem with 18-year-olds, at least those who don't go to a junior college or a four-year college, is that they are at that stage where they haven't figured what they want to do with their lives,” this trucking insider said.  “They're searching -- both career wise and in terms of personal growth.”

As for millennials, he said they typically have three or four jobs – or more – in their first five years in the workforce.  “So even if the industry establishes an apprenticeship program targeting high school grads, I'd expect the washout rate after a year or 18 months to be pretty high,” this executive said.

An alternative approach might be to target under-21 year-olds who've already started driving and have an intrastate CDL.  There's more of a commitment there, this executive said, because they've already experienced the industry and done the work to get licensed, at least at the state level. 

Providing them an opportunity to "upgrade" to an interstate job, by going through an apprentice or finishing school with a major carrier, with a guarantee of a regular job, this executive added. It also would mean more money upon completion, and be a wiser strategy to combat the driver shortage—currently estimated at 51,000 by the American Trucking Associations.

“Most large truckload carriers and LTL carriers already have apprentice or driver-training programs in place,” this executive said.  “Giving 19-to-21 year-olds the opportunity to be an apprentice, and have a senior driver as a mentor, would be an attractive opportunity. That would give them a better grounding in the industry, and increase the likelihood that they'd stay.”

The federal government currently requires truck drivers to be at least 21 to drive a large truck in interstate commerce. The pilot program appears to have the blessing of both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, who enjoy the backing of a large swath of executives in the trucking industry. The love affair seems to go both ways.

“America depends on you,” Trump told trucking executive last year at a White House photo op. “No one knows America like truckers know America.”

A bill has been introduced in the House to lower the truck driving age to 18. Truck drivers at least 18 can be employed in some states in intrastate commerce.

“We already say 18-year-olds can drive anywhere inside a state. All this bill does is say after they’ve completed a rigorous safety program of 400 total hours driving with somebody else, then they can cross state lines,” Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., a lead co-sponsor of the DRIVE-Safe Act, recently told the Washington Post.

The DRIVE-Safe Act mandates 240 hours of extra training before a driver under 21 can cross state lines driving solo. While driving as an apprentice, the under-21-year-olds would be prohibited from exceeding 65 miles per hour, according to the bill.

The deadline for submitting comments on the pilot program to FMCSA runs through Sept. 6.

About the Author

John D. Schulz
John D. Schulz has been a transportation journalist for more than 20 years, specializing in the trucking industry. John is on a first-name basis with scores of top-level trucking executives who are able to give shippers their latest insights on the industry on a regular basis.

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