US regulators asking for comments on whether 18-year-olds should be allowed to drive tractor-trailers in interstate commerce should expect their inboxes to overflow. The prospect of 18- to 20-year-olds driving 80,000-pound combination vehicles across state borders, even in a limited pilot project, attracts intense opposition as well as ardent supporters.
The US Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) asked for comments Tuesday on a potential pilot program that would allow civilians between 18 and 20 years of age to drive heavy trucks across state borders. Currently, US law requires interstate truckers to be at least 21 years old — unless they are in a federal pilot program for US military veterans.
“Commercial trucks and buses are essential to a thriving national economy, and the Department wants to ensure the public has an opportunity to comment on this important potential change,” US Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao said in a statement Tuesday.
Replenishing an aging workforce
Even if the age limit is dropped for entry-level drivers, it’s not clear that trucking companies would attract large numbers of working-age teenagers, nor whether those companies would be able to afford the higher insurance rates that would likely accompany them. The debate over the potential pilot program accentuates the difficulty motor carriers face hiring truck drivers of any age in an economy that is now closer to full employment than at any time since the 1960s.
The trucking industry shed a small number of jobs in April, according to the employment statistics released by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) May 3. Sequentially, trucking employment has plateaued in 2019, with BLS payroll numbers fluctuating between 1,516,000 and 1,516,800 employees in the first four months of 2019.
Still, seasonally adjusted trucking employment numbers were up 2.4 percent year over year, while total non-farm employment rose 1.8 percent, pushing the US unemployment rate down to 3.6 percent. The JOC For-Hire Trucking Employment Index dropped to 104.78, its first decline in 12 months, indicating US trucking employment is 4.8 percent higher than in 2006.
The push to get younger drivers behind the wheel has been under way for several years, as trucking industry demographics get older and grayer. Depending on who you ask, the average US truck driver is somewhere in his early 50s (women make up about 5 percent or less of the truck driving pool, according to most sources), and the average age keeps climbing.
The current age limit is seen as an obstacle to drawing younger adults without college degrees to careers in trucking before they take other jobs after high school. However, under federal law, those teenagers and 20-year-olds can drive heavy trucks in intrastate commerce.
“Right now, 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old drivers are driving trucks in the United States,” Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) said in a statement Tuesday. “What these [military and civilian] pilot programs will do is set out a path for these drivers to fully participate in our industry by allowing them to drive interstate.”
The ATA has pressed for a pilot program and apprenticeships for younger drivers, supporting legislation such as the DRIVE-Safe Act introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate last year that would lower the interstate commercial truck driving age to 18 nationally.
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) opposes the idea on the grounds that statistically speaking, younger drivers tend to be less safe. “If highway safety is the priority, the age should go up, not down,” Todd Spencer, president of OOIDA, said in a statement released Tuesday. “This pilot program would go against FMCSA’s goal of improving highway safety.”
FMCSA is looking for comments on the training, qualifications, driving limitations, and vehicle safety systems the administration should consider in developing options or approaches for a second pilot program for younger drivers. The agency announced details of its first program, targeted at 18- to 20-year-olds with military training, last July.
“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,” said FMCSA administrator Raymond P. Martinez.
The proposal will be published in the May 15 Federal Register, the agency said.