New Infrastructure Bill Frees Trucking Companies to Hire Underage Drivers, Despite Higher Crash Risk
Trucking companies across the United States will soon be free to hire underage drives, thanks to a little-discussed provision included in the $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill President Joe Biden signed into law just last week.
The provision will ostensibly help the industry cope with a long-standing shortage of truck drivers that has helped hobble the nation’s supply chain in recent months. But critics fear that putting underage drivers behind the wheel of 18-wheelers and other commercial vehicles will only add to the epidemic of severe and fatal traffic accidents currently plaguing the nation’s roads and highways.
Pandemic Has Worsened Chronic Trucker Shortage
The trucker shortage is genuine and has only worsened in the era of COVID-19.
A notoriously demanding job, truckers spend long, irregular hours on the road and are frequently away from home for weeks – if not months –at a time. As the pandemic took hold, truckers eager for less stressful working conditions set off a wave of retirement and resignations that only exacerbated the ongoing driver shortage.
“I had no personal life outside of driving a truck,” a former long-haul driver who quit in October told The Baltimore Sun. “I finally had enough.”
The trucking industry’s “great resignation” has only worsened the pandemic-related supply chain issues that have left store shelves bare, led to rising prices across the country, and significantly extended delivery times for many goods from days to weeks or months.
Apprenticeship Program Would Allow for Truck Drivers as Young as 18
Federal regulations had required non-military truck drivers to be at least 21 before they could drive a rig across state lines, while those aged 18-to-20 could only drive short routes within their states. But the trucking industry has long sought to hire underage truckers, arguing that the ability to bring on drivers as young as 18 would ease the chronic personnel shortage.
With the signing of the infrastructure bill on November 15th, the industry finally won out.
The new law mandates that the U.S. Department of Transportation establish an apprenticeship program for young drivers by January 14, 2022. It’s estimated that the program could certify up to 25,000 18- to 20-year-old drivers as long-haul truckers per year until it ends in 2024.
Apprentice truckers will be required to drive 240 hours under the supervision of older drivers, and they may only operate vehicles equipped with safety features like automatic brake systems and a 65 mile per hour speed governor. But once they’ve put in their 240 supervised hours, they’ll be free to drive any cross-state route in the country.
Allowing Underage Truckers Ignores Their Increased Crash Risk
The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) claims that allowing underage truckers ignores their increased crash risk – a concern backed by available research.
In fact, as recently as 2019, the Congressional Research Service studied proposals for lowering the minimum truck driving age to 18, ultimately concluding that “young commercial drivers, like young drivers overall, are much more likely to be involved in crashes than their older counterparts,”
An earlier meta-analysis of commercial driver safety studies found that crash risk increases with younger drivers, then falls as they get older, and begins to rise again once they reach age 65.
And while the trucking industry insists underage drivers are key to solving its long-standing staffing problems, it appears the issue is actually related to retention rather than recruitment. Trucking suffers from a staggering 100% turnover rate, with data suggesting that 1/3 of all new drivers quit after just three months on the job.
“If the problem is turnover, would turnover be even less if you recruit and hire even younger drivers?” asked OOIDA president Todd Spencer, according to Quartz.com “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.’”
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