UPDATED. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has not yet proposed a pre-rule let alone a rule to lower the age for interstate truck drivers, but the agency announced on May 14 that it’s seeking public comment on a “potential” pilot program that would allow drivers ages 18 to 20 to operate commercial motor vehicles in interstate commerce.
Last July, FMCSA said it would initiate a pilot program to allow certain 18- to 20-year-olds with military training to operate CMVs in interstate commerce. That action was taken to comply with a congressional mandate written into the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act highway bill, which was signed into law in 2015.
The agency’s latest action could lead to it launching a pilot program that would not be limited to drivers who had picked up some experience driving commercial vehicles while serving in the military— in effect, considerably widening the potential labor pool, especially of long-haul drivers.
FMCSA specifically said it is now requesting comments on the “training, qualifications, driving limitations, and vehicle safety systems that FMCSA should consider in developing options or approaches” for a second pilot program for non-military drivers of ages18 to 20.
“We want input from the public on efforts that offer the potential to create more jobs in the commercial motor vehicle industry, while maintaining the highest level of safety,” FMCSA Administrator Ray Martinez said in a statement.
“We encourage all CMV stakeholders to submit comments on a potential interstate pilot program for younger drivers,” he added.
The issue of lowering the age for driving trucks on interstate routes is being driven by the shortage of long-haul truckers. Whether the age should be lowered is a matter of fierce debate.
It’s common sense to many that if an 18- to-20 year old can safely drive a truck clear across a state as large as, say, Texas, the same driver should be allowed to cross from there into Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, or New Mexico without suddenly becoming a menace on the highway. However, others don’t see it that way at all.
For example, while a coalition of nearly 70 trade organizations has sent a letter to Congress in support of the bipartisan DRIVE-Safe Act that would allow drivers as young as 18 to operate trucks in interstate commerce, in its own letter to Congress opposing that bill, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association stated it believes that bringing in younger drivers would not only be less safe, but would also negatively affect driver wages and working conditions-- and possibly open the young drivers up to predatory practices.
At the heart of the Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy Act is creation of an apprenticeship training program that would allow commercial driver’s license holders under the age of 21 to legally drive commercial vehicles interstate.
As to FMCSA’s potential wider piloting of younger drivers, OOIDA in a May 14 news release restated its opposition to lowering the interstate CDL age. “Launching this pilot program would go against FMCSA’s goal of improving highway safety,” said OOIDA President Todd Spencer. “The agency should not be used as a tool for large motor carriers to expand their driver pool instead of fixing the problems that have led to their extremely high turnover rates.
“If highway safety is the priority,” he continued, “the age should go up, not down. Instead of efforts to entice the least experienced, the focus should be hiring and retaining the most experienced drivers, not expanding the funnel of driver churn.”
On the other hand, the American Trucking Associations restated its support for allowing younger drivers in its own May 14 news release. “ATA supports FMCSA’s efforts to expand on its current work examining younger commercial drivers,” said ATA President and CEO Chris Spear. “Right now, 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old drivers are driving trucks in the United States. What these pilot programs will do is set out a path for these drivers to fully participate in our industry by allowing them to drive interstate.
“Between FMCSA’s proposed pilot project and the bipartisan support for the Drive SAFE Act in Congress,” he added, “we hope we will soon create a path for more young people to fully participate in our industry.”
"The Trucking Alliance will file comments on this proposed pilot program and may support a pilot with several conditions,” Lane Kidd, managing director of the truck-safety advocacy group told HDT. “In the meantime, we’d encourage Congress to shelve the so-called teenage truck driver bill pending in both chambers. This legislation would bypass any research that could be gained from a pilot project and after a few weeks of training, would put teenagers out on the road driving cross-country.
“Let’s go slow on this legislation,” he continued, “until a pilot project can show whether we increase the risk of large truck crashes with teenagers behind the wheel. The only research on the subject was conducted by the University of Michigan a few years ago, and the results were not encouraging to let teenagers operate in interstate commerce.”
For how to submit comments on FMCSA’s potential younger-driver pilot program, go to the Federal Register Notice outlining the request.
Editor's Note: Updated on May 16 at 2:30 pm EDT to include comments from the Trucking Alliance.