A significant shortage is looming in the trucking industry, and it has been for some time. The American Trucking Association says there is currently a shortage of 51,000 truck drivers across the country, and they predict that figure to grow to over 100,000 by 2022. It’s created a potential disaster for the industry that the American Trucking Association has been trying to solve.
The latest option they’re pursuing involves doing away with a federal law that prohibits commercial truck drivers younger than 21 from driving across state lines. By lowering the minimum age to 18, some in the industry say they could avoid the crippling driver shortage.
Others, however, disagree as to both the solution and the real problem in the industry. Some truckers, trucking organizations and safety advocacy groups say that more inexperienced young truck drivers on the roads could raise the risk of dangerous and deadly truck crashes and that the real issue is not about finding new drivers, but retaining existing ones. The trucking industry has developed a reputation for sub-par pay, brutal hours and job demands that make it hard for a truck driver to stay healthy or safe.
Lawmakers Have Been Attempting to Lower Truck Driver Age for Years
The proposed legislation that would lower the minimum driving age for truckers going across state lines is in the Developing a Reliable and Innovation Vision for the Economy (DRIVE) Act. It was proposed by a Republican senator from Oklahoma on June 23, 2015, and was cosponsored by two Democratic senators (one from Delaware and one from California) and another Republic senator from Louisiana.
The bill outlines many transportation-related changes, but one of the most attention-grabbing is the proposal to allow anyone above the age of 18 to work as a commercial truck driver across state lines. The idea is that it would open up another hiring avenue to battle the industry’s worker shortage and that it would enable current truck drivers under age 21 to expand their work areas to other states.
The bill was revitalized by Republican Reps. Duncan Hunter and Trey Hollingsworth, of California and Indiana, respectively, in March 2018, and has since then been backed by the American Trucking Associations and UPS, among others.
To combat safety concerns over the young truck drivers, the lawmakers are proposing that 18 to 21-year-old drivers would have to complete a 400-hour training program (after they obtain a commercial driver’s license). The 400-hour training program would include two probationary periods.
“Unfortunately, we see many young Americans faced with the choice of either taking on thousands of dollars in college debt or entering into a job market with grim prospects for untrained workers,” Rep. Hunter said in a statement on the bill.
16 to 19-Year-Old Drivers Rank as the Most Dangerous Drivers on the Road
There are numerous concerns about the potential change. They primarily revolve around the safety issues of enabling a new, younger set of truck drivers to traverse the country.
16 to 19-year-old drivers are already the most dangerous drivers on America’s roadways, and that’s typically without being behind the wheel of a big rig, a vehicle that can do catastrophic damage to passenger vehicles. The age group is almost three times more likely to be in a fatal crash per mile driven, and male drivers (of which the new young truck drivers would primarily be) are especially notorious.
Based on 2013 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, while 15 to 19-year-olds translate to only seven percent of the total population in the U.S., they account for 11% of the total costs of motor vehicle injuries. That works out to $10 billion.
Some of the factors that contribute to this are reported to be a tendency for teens to “underestimate dangerous situations or not be able to recognize hazardous situations” and for teens to be more likely to make critical errors that lead to serious accidents. Teens are also more likely to speed and follow the vehicle in front of them more closely. In a regular passenger vehicle, this is concerning enough. In a semi-truck, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Safety Groups Raise Red Flags Over Bill
These concerns have inspired the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety organization (and others like it) to speak out against the DRIVE Act.
The group says young truck drivers aged 19 to 21 were six times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident, based on a 1991 study published in Accident Analysis & Prevention. The training being suggested for these younger drivers, they say, is insufficient and pales in comparison to the experience truck drivers build up over time and with age. There are also questions of whether the trucking companies, who would be responsible for overseeing the young truck drivers’ training, would handle the responsibility appropriately.
“It’s up to the carrier if one of these younger drivers has a moving violation, or a speeding ticket, or a crash, whether they continue to allow them to operate the truck,” Peter Kurdock, director of regulatory affairs at Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, told the Washington Examiner. “Those are some really large flaws if you, like us, are looking from a public safety lens.”
Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association Against DRIVE Act
Another group speaking out against the DRIVE Act is the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA). The group sent a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives in an attempt to block efforts at moving forward with the lowered age minimum in the DRIVE Act.
In the letter, OOIDA says the lowered minimum age would have a negative effect on road safety and could be dangerous for the young truck drivers.
“We think it’s irresponsible to put young drivers behind the wheel of a truck in order to avoid addressing the real problems of high turnover,” Todd Spencer, acting president of OOIDA, said of their concerns. “The focus should instead be on fixing the staggering turnover rate with better pay and working conditions.”
They are not the only ones in the trucking industry who say that the problem is not finding people to hire, but keeping current truck drivers. There is a high turnover rate in the industry that most attribute to long (poorly regulated) hours, health risks and low pay.
Dave MacMillan has worked as a truck driver since he was 16-years-old and believes teens can drive big rigs safely, but he doesn’t think they’ll want to.
“When I got into [trucking], you could make a living to be in the upper middle class. Gradually that’s dwindled away…it’s become a subsistence living,” MacMillan said in an interview with Fortune. “It’s an incredibly hard life for not very much money.”