A long-awaited but controversial initiative that will allow young truck drivers to haul freight across state lines is seeking fast-track status from the White House.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has asked the Office of Management and Budget for review and emergency approval of a three-year apprenticeship program to allow carriers to employ drivers between the ages of 18 and 21 for hauling freight across state lines, according to a request filed Thursday.
Current regulations require drivers to be 21 or older to operate a truck in interstate commerce. Drivers under 21 can haul within a state subject to state laws.
FMCSA expects the pilot, the authority for which was approved under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and previewed under the Biden administration’s Trucking Action Plan unveiled in December, to receive 44,945 applications from 4,500 motor carriers and 40,445 drivers.
Presuming OMB approves the project – FMCSA has requested it be approved by Jan. 13 – data collected from participants may help settle the question of whether allowing younger drivers on the road is a safety hazard or boosts carrier revenue by filling cab seats – or both.
Initiatives allowing drivers younger than 21 to haul freight interstate has received strong support from the American Trucking Associations as a way to increase the eligible driver pool. ATA President and CEO Chris Spear argued at a Senate hearing in 2020 that current laws allow a driver under 21 to drive hundreds of miles in California but do not allow a driver to drive 10 miles from Providence, Rhode Island, to Rehoboth, Massachusetts. “That’s got to be the dumbest policy I’ve ever seen,” Spear said.
At the same hearing, however, Dawn King, president of the Truck Safety Coalition, testified that research examining intrastate (as opposed to interstate) commercial truck drivers show those under the age of 19 are four times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes, and those between 19 and 20 are six times more likely.
“Additionally, the qualifications for a teen truck driver passing the probationary periods are left entirely to the discretion of the employer who is incentivized to get the driver on the road as soon as possible,” said Catherine Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, at hearing on Capitol Hill in November. “No standard tests or evaluations given by an independent party are required.”
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has also opposed loosening restrictions on under-21 drivers on safety grounds and pointed out insurance risks. However, OOIDA President and CEO Todd Spencer has said he is less opposed to a pilot program such as the one being proposed by FMCSA.
“While not perfect, it’s better than fully opening up licenses to teen drivers,” Spencer said last year of provisions included in legislation introduced in both the House and Senate over the last several years.
Under the FMCSA-led program, apprentices who currently have a CDL will complete two probationary periods, during which they may operate in interstate commerce only under the supervision of an experienced driver in the passenger seat – i.e., a driver who is not younger than 26, has held a CDL, has been employed for at least the past two years, and has at least five years of interstate commercial driving experience.
The first probationary period must include at least 120 hours of on-duty time, of which at least 80 hours are driving time in a truck. During this period the employer must determine competency in:
- Interstate, city traffic, rural two-lane and evening driving.
- Safety awareness.
- Speed and space management.
- Lane control.
- Mirror scanning.
- Right and left turns.
- Logging and complying with rules relating to hours of service.
The second probationary period must include at least 280 hours of on-duty time, including not less than 160 hours driving time in a truck. Competency during this period includes:
- Backing and maneuvering in close quarters.
- Pretrip inspections.
- Fueling procedures.
- Weighing loads, weight distribution and sliding tandems.
- Coupling and uncoupling procedures.
- Trip planning, truck routes, map reading, navigation and permits.
Apprentices completing the second probationary period can begin operating trucks in interstate commerce unaccompanied by an experienced driver.
Data collected from the pilot will be used to report on several issues, including an analysis of the safety record of apprentices compared to other drivers; a comparison of safety records of participating drivers before, during and after each probationary period; and a comparison of each participating driver’s average on-duty time, driving time and time spent away from the home terminal before, during and after each probationary period.