Currently, drivers must be 21 years old to operate commercial trucks in interstate commerce. The petition seeks a three-year exemption to that limitation for certain younger drivers.
The trucking industry is currently at a disadvantage when it comes to attracting the best and brightest high school graduates who wish to immediately pursue and career and don't plan to go on to college. Effectively, the 21-year age limits forces anyone interested in becoming a truck driver to wait three years. Most will move into another occupation.
The trucking industry, faced with a driver shortage that has become acute, hopes to expand the driver pool by lowering the age limit for certain younger drivers. These drivers will receive extensive training and work with specific trucking companies that have far-reaching driver training and finishing programs in place.
"Ironically," said Lana Batts, TCA president, "18-year-olds are already driving 18-wheelers in all but two states (New Jersey and Nevada) on an intrastate basis. If granted, this petition would provide the most extensive training any truck driver has ever received."
The program will be based on the "right" student, the "right" employer, and the "right" training, stressed Batts. The right student is defined as someone who has demonstrated an understanding that a driver's license is a privilege and not a right. Only students who have acted responsibly while holding a car license would be eligible. They can have no chargeable accidents, no serious speeding tickets and no convictins for careless or reckless driving or driving under the influence.
The training school will be required to be certified by the Professional Truck Driver Institute and be willing to expand its program to almost six months. The new, longer course would be certified by PTDI and would last at least 22 weeks (or 460 hours), including 14 weeks (or 280 hours) in the classroom and eight weeks (or 160 hours) of behind-the-wheel time.
Trucking companies involved will be required to have a satisfactory safety rating and better than average accident rate. The company will have to offer a PTDI-certified eight-week (or 460 hour) driver finishing program in which the student receives a weekly salary (not paid by the mile). The driver trainer would have to meet all PTDI standards for experience, licensing and safety. Once the carrier and the school agree, the student would then graduate into an 18-week team operation.
Only after 48 weeks of training and on-the-job experience would the student be declared "solo ready" by both the school and the carrier. At this point, the fully licensed CDL holder could move to another company, but it could only be a company that is also in the program.
TCA expects that about 1,000 students will be enrolled in the program, depending upon the number needed to produce a statistically valid study. The number of schools participating will be less than 10 and the number of carriers will be less than 20.
The younger driver pilot project is an outgrowth of work by the TCA's Driver Recruitment and Retention Panel chaired by Ronnie Dowdy, Ronnie Dowdy Trucking, Batesville, AK. The panel determined that if the trucking industry is to solve its driver shortage problem, it must make driving a profession in the true sense of the word. And that means providing drivers with formal training, surpervision and mentoring.
"If you believe in training, then you have to support this effort," said Dowdy.
The petition encourages FMCSA to contract with a major university to verify the research design; monitor the outcomes of schools, carriers and drivers; and produce an interim and final evaluation report.
TCA is hoping DOT will act quickly on the petition so that schools can seek accreditation for the new program, which must be done before the schools, carriers and state associations can begin to recruit high school seniors. In anticipation of the petition being granted, PTDI has already scheduled a stakeholder meeting in March to begin the process of developing curriculum and certification standards for both the schools and the carriers.