The infrastructure bill will put teenage truckers on US roads

Soon, these truck could be driven by teenagers.
Soon, these truck could be driven by teenagers.
Image: REUTERS/Carlos Barria
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Tucked into the $1 trillion infrastructure bill that US president Joe Biden signed into law today (Nov. 15) is a big win for the long-haul trucking industry: an apprenticeship program that would allow trucking companies to hire drivers as young as 18.

Industry groups have been lobbying the US Congress to lower the minimum truck driving age for decades. Until now, the federal government has required non-military drivers to be at least 21 before they can drive a truck across state lines as a safety measure, since teenagers are more likely to crash than older adults. (18- to 20-year-olds can only drive short routes within their state boundaries.) But groups like the American Trucking Associations (ATA), which represents big US trucking companies, have long argued that putting 18-year-olds behind the wheel of long-haul trucks would help the industry recover from a long-standing driver shortage.

The industry has won out. The law requires transportation secretary Pete Buttigeig establish an apprenticeship program for young drivers by Jan. 14, 2022. This program could certify up to 25,000 18- to 20-year-old drivers as long-haul truckers per year until it ends in 2024. The apprentice truckers will be required to drive 240 hours under the supervision of an older driver in a truck equipped with safety features like automatic brake systems and a 65 mile per hour speed governor. After that, they’re free to drive any cross-state route in the country.

Buttigieg sought to tamp down crash concerns in a Nov. 8 press conference highlighting the program. “We want as many people to be qualified drivers as possible, but never at the expense of safety,” he said.

Young truck drivers are more likely to crash

Those who oppose lowering the minimum truck driving age, including the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA), which represents independent drivers and small trucking companies, often bring up safety concerns. “The younger you are, the more you crash,” said Norita Taylor, an OOIDA spokesperson.

Research generally supports that argument. In 2019, the Congressional Research Service, a non-partisan think tank that researches policy recommendations for US lawmakers, studied proposals for lowering the minimum truck driving age to 18. “Studies consistently show that young commercial drivers, like young drivers overall, are much more likely to be involved in crashes than their older counterparts,” the authors concluded. In one 1991 review of fatal truck accidents in the US, 19- and 20-year-old drivers were found to be six times more likely to get into a deadly crash than the average trucker.

Their findings agree with other meta-analyses of driver safety studies, which find that there’s a “U” shaped correlation between age and crash risk: The younger you are, the more likely you are to crash—until you reach about 65 and your risk of crashing starts to increase as you get older.

The US began studying the relative risk of letting 18-year-olds drive trucks long distances last year, in a military pilot program that put young soldiers behind the wheel for the sake of collecting data on how often they crashed. But the military study won’t offer much guidance. So far, no information about the results has been released. The program is set to run through 2023 and publish a report in 2024. By then, the newly approved commercial driver apprenticeship program will already have ended.

Can young drivers solve the perpetual driver “shortage”?

Industry groups have been arguing that trucking companies are suffering from a debilitating shortage of qualified drivers since the 1980s. (US Labor Department economists are skeptical of that claim.) One of the problems, lobbying groups have consistently argued, is that trucking companies can’t recruit workers right out of high school, so they lose talent to other blue-collar industries like manufacturing and construction. By the time workers are eligible to enter the long-haul industry, they’re already three years deep into another career.

“We all know the 18- to 21-year-old period is a time where we lose kids coming out of high school that don’t go to college but go to trade schools and into construction and other competing industries,” ATA vice president Dave Osiecki told the Truckers Report in 2015.

Despite that pipeline problem, the data suggest the real problem in trucking is not recruitment but retention: Big trucking companies’ annual turnover rates consistently hover near 100%, and a third of drivers quit in their first three months on a job. The job can be grueling, and long-haul trucking in particular can keep drivers away from home for weeks on end. Hourly wages in other blue-collar jobs are comparable. “If the problem is turnover, would turnover be even less if you recruit and hire even younger drivers?” asked OOIDA president Todd Spencer. “I suspect that those that would fit into the 18 to 20 age group would be even quicker to say, ‘This ain’t for me.’”

Allowing teenagers to drive trucks is far different than placing them in the job. The new apprenticeship program will require certified drivers to sit in the passenger seat while young trainees accrue their first 240 hours behind the wheel. That’s a tough ask in the short-run, when the industry is already complaining that it doesn’t have enough drivers to meet the holiday shipping rush. And it’s not clear how many experienced drivers will want to take on a young apprentice: In a poll conducted by the trucking trade publication CDLLife in September 2020, 83% of truckers said they opposed lowering the driving age to 18.