Department of Transportation To Consider Younger Truck Drivers

A proposed program that would allow 18- to 20-year-olds behind the wheels of commercial trucks has highway safety experts worried. But the Alexandria, Va.-based Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) - the pilot's designer - insists the program offers a safe and viable way to explore solutions to driver recruitment problems.

Designed to train and license 1,000 younger truck drivers during the next three years, the program now is on the table at the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), Washington, D.C., which published a request for comments on Feb. 21, 2001.

Since February, the FMCSA has received hundreds of comments from private citizens, trucking industry representatives and safety advocates. FMCSA spokesman David Longo is not surprised by the response. “It's a proposal that will generate lots of thought,” he says.

With older drivers retiring, the trucking industry is having trouble recruiting qualified drivers, according to Bob Hirsch, TCA president. The pilot would make the trucking industry's recruiting efforts more fruitful, he says.

But “the pilot is designed to look only at qualified individuals — not to just bring in willy nilly any and every 18-year-old,” Hirsch explains.

As part of the program, applicants would undergo 48 weeks of intensive classroom training, driving instruction and supervision. “We've designed a very thoughtful, comprehensive program,” Hirsch adds. “Safety is always a concern for our membership.”

But no amount of training can mitigate the increased risk of allowing younger truck drivers on the road, says Allan Williams, chief scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), Arlington, Va.

“The crash risk for drivers under the age of 21 is so high that I don't think this program can compensate for that risk,” he says.

In fact, the crash risk with younger drivers is four to six times greater than the risk with drivers over the age of 21, according to a 1991 University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute study.

Based on similar findings, the current federal age requirement for commercial truck drivers is 21.

But TCA's Hirsch insists the program's goal is not to change the federal age requirements. Rather, TCA wants to address growing recruitment concerns in a responsible way. “One thousand drivers over a three-year period is not a large number,” he says, “but it's a number we felt we could manage and control during the initial pilot.”

If the program's graduates prove to be no more dangerous than drivers older than 21, TCA hopes to renew the program.

According to Hirsch, the trucking industry misses “a substantial opportunity because [it] can't talk to [potential drivers] at age 18, and that hurts,” he says. “To the extent that someone might be interested in a career in trucking, it's unreasonable to expect that they will wait for three years.”

IIHS' Williams says he's sympathetic to the industry's plight, but notes that TCA's attempt to implement what he calls a “graduated licensing program” for commercial truck drivers is not a safe solution. TCA's proposal “introduces a new, high-risk group” of commercial drivers, he says, and that is not the answer to the recruitment problem.

“Taken together, [existing] studies suggest that permitting drivers younger than 21 to operate large trucks in interstate commerce will have detrimental effects on the safety of not only these young drivers but also people sharing the road with them,” IIHS wrote in its official comments to the FMCSA.

Nevertheless, Hirsch insists that today's job market requires innovative solutions like the pilot.

“If we don't come up with creative ways to address these problems, a far bigger problem will occur down the line,” he says. “The convenience we have come to expect — like walking into a store and getting what we want — is going to change.”

For these reasons, Hirsch is optimistic that the program will move forward. But FMCSA spokesman Longo says it's too early to tell.

“Right now, this is not something we endorse,” Longo says. “It's just something we've put out there for public comment.”

All written comments on the pilot are due to the FMCSA by May 21, 2001, and the administration will make a decision “sometime after that,” Longo says. He predicts a final decision will be made within a year after the deadline.

Meanwhile, Hirsch says the truck driver recruitment problem affects all Americans. “If you're sitting on a chair,” he says, “you're sitting on it because a truck brought it.”