You’re 18 years old and just graduated from high school. You can serve in the nation’s armed forces. You can marry your high school sweetheart and become a parent. If you commit a crime, you’ll be tried as an adult.
But you can’t legally deliver a load hauled by a commercial truck across a state line.
One of the many provisions in the recent wrangling over a highway bill is one that would address this issue. It would create a pilot program allowing contiguous states to form “compacts” that could drop the age requirement for interstate drivers operating between those states.
People opposed to the bill say teenage drivers are more dangerous, less experienced, too naïve... Yet they already may be sharing the road with such drivers behind the wheel of big rigs driving intrastate, as allowed in many states.
It’s true that teenagers typically don’t have the same level of judgment and experience as their older counterparts, especially behind the wheel. Statistics show drivers under 21 have a higher rate of fatal crashes. This is not something to take lightly.
That’s why any such pilot program should involve a graduated licensing system. Many states already have such graduated licenses for teen car drivers, restricting things such as nighttime driving until young drivers get more experience. The best approach to getting younger drivers behind the wheel of interstate trucks, in fact, would be more like an apprentice program.
Earlier this year, as part of our “Driver Dilemma” series on the driver shortage, I talked with Joyce (Sauer) Brenny, CEO and founder of Minnesota-based Brenny Transportation/Brenny Specialized. The 55-truck company has extremely low turnover and a stellar safety record, and it’s developed a program to hire and train 18-, 19- and 20-year olds.
Brenny’s program puts drivers with a commercial learner’s permit through 17 weeks of training before drivers do any runs on their own. They start out on short, cross-town runs and remain local drivers until age 21, and come in weekly for mentoring and feedback sessions. Even once they’re 21, a trainer goes with them on their first few over-the-road runs.
Con-way Freight has said if this measure were to pass, it would expand to younger drivers a program it already has, which hires candidates initially as dockworkers, and later places them in an in-house driving school for three months before they take their commercial driver license exam.
Beyond a graduated, training-heavy apprenticeship type program, regulations allowing younger drivers could require fleets to use safety and monitoring technologies such as collision mitigation or in-cab cameras.
Right now, an 18-year-old can drive a truck more than 600 miles from El Paso, Texas, to Dallas, but can’t cross the street to deliver that same load from Texarkana, Texas, to Texarkana, Ark.
Graduated licensing is proven and effective for reducing the risk of young drivers of passenger vehicles. Millions of drivers have gotten their licenses this way. With an unemployment rate for young adults nearly triple the national average, and the trucking industry facing a severe driver shortage, it’s time to try the same approach in trucking.