“Drivers today can drive from San Francisco to San Diego, but can’t cross the street in Texarkana,” a city on the Texas-Arkansas border, said Rob Abbott, vice president for safety policy at the American Trucking Associations, an industry group. “That’s an imaginary boundary. It’s illogical.”
The highway funding bill working its way through Congress contains language that would weaken those barriers. Both the House and Senate versions of the legislation would create a pilot program allowing groups of states to create “compacts” permitting truckers under 21. The Senate version lowers the minimum age to 18, while the House bill allows drivers older than 19-and-a-half.
The prospects for the provision are uncertain. The Senate passed a long-term transportation bill in July with the pilot program included. But the House has yet to vote on its own legislation, and the two bills must then be merged and passed again in both chambers. Congressional aides said this week that because there is so little time before the current highway funding authorization expires Oct. 29, lawmakers are likely to pass another short-term extension, which would leave the trucker age limits intact.
Get the latest logistics and supply chain news and analysis via an email newsletter. Sign up here.Speaking this week at the ATA’s management convention in Philadelphia, Mr. Abbott said getting young people into trucking was near the top of the group’s list of priorities. Trucking companies need an additional 48,000 drivers to keep up with demand for freight transportation, the ATA said in a recent report, and many fleets have raised pay and other benefits aggressively over the last year to recruit drivers.
Safety groups, including Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, oppose the proposal to lower age limits, which they say would make roads more dangerous because younger drivers are more likely to get into accidents. Many of these groups advocate for minimum ages to be raised for in-state trucking as well.
“Eighteen, 19 and 20 year old drivers, whether behind the wheel of a car or a truck, are high-risk drivers,” said Jackie Gillan, the group’s president. “This just makes the motoring public into guinea pigs in a very dangerous experiment.”
Trucking executives say they need to bring in more young people to counter a wave of retirements – the average trucker is nearly 50 - and to meet rising demand. The problem, they add, is that the job of a driver has a reputation for low pay and long, monotonous hours on the road away from home.
Aaron Tennant, president of Colona, Ill.-based Tennant Truck Lines Inc., said his company has 15 of its 250 trucks sitting idle, at a cost of about $75,000 per month, because he can’t find drivers for them. He has raised pay twice in the last year to attract more drivers.
Forcing potential drivers to wait three years after high school before becoming long-haul truckers drives young people into other jobs in construction, manufacturing, warehousing and retail, says John Lex, a third-generation trucker who has been driving for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. for 13 years. Mr. Lex said he has two sons who showed no interest in trucking. One is currently in college, while the other works in a retail position at a Wal-Mart store.
“A young kid who is 18, coming out of high school, he gets a job somewhere else, stays three years, decides he likes it. You can get a job in our warehouse making $18 or $20 an hour and go home every night after work,” he said. “I think we lose a lot of good drivers because of this.”