WHAT DO TRAFFIC MANAGERS THINK of letting 18-year-olds drive those big rigs?

I don't like it, says Anthony J. Brancaccio, director, transportation and planning, Warner-Lambert Co. of Morris Plains, N.J.Last week truckers petitioned the Department of Transportation to lower the minimum age for driving heavy rigs from 21 to 18. Their aim is to widen the ranks of trucker hopefuls in the hopes of putting the skids to the growing shortage of drivers.

Most traffic officials say it's bad enough putting autos in the hands of a teen-ager, but plopping youngsters behind the wheel of a heavy-rig carrying cargo worth up to a half-million dollars is a terrible idea.

Kenneth R. Patrick, contracting agent, transportation, General Electric Co. in Bridgeport, Conn., cites a lack of maturity in 18-year olds. Dominick J. Fantauzzo, traffic manager for Schlegel Corp. of Rochester, N.Y., agrees.

A traffic manager for a Northeast-based foods producer said bluntly, I've volunteered with young people and my belief is they're simply not ready.

Another distribution manager for a Southeast-based food supermarket chain says he wouldn't mind a two- or three-year apprentice program to develop a new cadre of drivers.

But to take an 18-year-old guy and say, 'Okay, you're qualified to take a tractor trailer up and down the road,' Uh-oh, he says.

George A. Yarusavage, corporate manager, transportation, GTE Service Corp., of Stamford, Conn., says age won't be the only determinant for driver safety. As long as the new drivers have the right amount of training, age shouldn't be a problem, he says.

If DOT approves the petition, Mr. Yarusavage predicts driver training programs will intensify their emphasis on safety and be more closely supervised. But that won't stop insurance firms from upping premiums, he warns.

Other traffic officials I talked to fear the country's renewed penchant for enforcing anti-discrimination laws means truckers will be deluged by hordes of unqualified female applicants.

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INTERNATIONAL TRAFFIC MANAGERS have always faced pressure on the bottom line from foreign exchange rates.

The problem is becoming more acute as the dollar continues its slide, enabling more U.S. products to amble their way overseas.

This has caused General Motors Corp. to scrutinize shipping terms carefully for 10,000 small GM truck engines slated for export to Isuzu Motors Ltd. in Japan to ensure it gets the best deal.

GM sources tell me the automaker has yet to finalize pacts for the shipments that begin this fall. Isuzu, of which GM owns 40 percent, says it'll import another 20,000 truck engines next year.

Still to be ironed out is the point at which Isuzu will take responsibility for the cargo - at GM plants or at the ports, or possibly when the engines hit Japan.

Also to be decided is the packaging. Sources tell me if Isuzu takes shipment responsibility and opts for racks instead of disposable wood block and braces, one container will come back filled with racks for every three full ones delivered. With disposable dunnage, all three would be available for revenue freight service on the return voyage.

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NOW THAT IT'S THE NEWEST trade association to get an export trading certificate, the United States Hide, Skin & Leather Association has begun shopping for decent ocean freight rates.

Rates are going up every 90 days and many of our members are forward contract sellers, says a USHSLA official. Those using c.i.f. (customs, insurance and freight) rates can't contract out more than 90 days in advance

because it takes longer than that to put together a shipment.

So the group, which obtained the coveted export trading certificate from the Department of Commerce in December, will ask the TransPacific Westbound Rate Agreement carriers for long-term commitments, the official says.

According to a Commerce Department source, 86 of the certificates have been issued up to March 9th, but USHSLA is only the fifth trade group ever to be granted one.

The USHSLA official says the group numbers 100, but only about 20 members belong to the rate agreement. USHSLA members comprise 2 1/2 percent to 3 percent of conference tonnage, says Ronald B. Gottshall, TWRA's managing director. Annually, USHSLA exports $1.3 billion of product, with 80 percent of it destined for the Far East, the official says.

The official adds USHSLA will agree to a slightly higher than current rate at the onset. The reason for that is the higher rate will remain stable while other shippers look on as their freight rates escalate every three months, he explains. USHSLA, he says, is hoping to negotiate 12-month contracts.

At current rates, it costs $2,000 to move one 20-foot container from the United States to the Far East at an inland port rate, he says. From the Midwest, the cost ranges up to $2,500. USHSLA ships about 50 20-foot equivalent unit containers (TEUs) every week to the Far East.