Trump Administration Pushing Self-Driving Trucks, Underage Commercial Drivers

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The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) is considering proposals that could allow underage drivers to operate interstate commercial vehicles and speed the development of self-driving trucks.

Although industry interests cheered both proposals, safety advocates are concerned that the policy changes will ultimately lead to an uptick in dangerous 18-wheeler crashes and other commercial vehicle accidents.

FMSCA Seeks Input on Underage Commercial Driver Proposal

The FMSCA already allows drivers between the ages of 18-20 to operate big rigs and other commercial vehicles on intrastate roads and highways. On May 15th, however, the agency proposed a pilot program that would permit drivers as young as 18 to operate commercial vehicles across state lines.

“We want input from the public on efforts that offer the potential to create more jobs in the commercial motor vehicle industry, while maintaining the highest level of safety,” FMCSA Administrator Raymond Martinez said in a press release.

The regulator launched a similar initiative last July, but that pilot program is only open to former military personnel who’ve undergone specified heavy-vehicle driver training while in service.

Underage Truckers May Lack Experience to Drive Safely

While the American Trucking Association called the FMSCA’s proposal a “natural progression” of the program implemented last year, others are concerned that it will allow inexperienced drivers to take to the road.

“Launching this pilot program would go against FMCSA’s goal of improving highway safety,” the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association said in a statement issued on May 15th. “The agency should not be used as a tool for large motor carriers to expand their driver pool instead of fixing the problems that have led to their extremely high turnover rates.”

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters echoed those sentiments just days later, warning that the proposal was “of grave concern to those who use the roadways as their workplace” while “also potentially jeopardizing the safety of all road users.”

FMSCA to Ease Rule on Self-Driving Trucks & Buses

On May 22nd, the FMSCA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) filed advanced notices of proposed rulemaking “on the removal of unnecessary regulatory barriers to the safe introduction of automated driving systems (ADS) vehicles in the United States.”

“FMCSA is hoping to receive feedback from commercial motor vehicle stakeholders and the motoring public on how the agency should adapt its regulations for the development of increased automated driving systems in large trucks and buses,” Martinez said.  “We know that while many of these technologies are still in development, it is critical that we carefully examine how to make federal rules keep up with this advancing technology.”

Driverless Technology Implicated in Several Fatalities

This isn’t the first time that the Trump administration has moved to promote self-driving trucks. Last September, in fact, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) announced that it would “no longer assume” that the driver of a commercial truck is human, and would even “adapt the definitions of ‘driver’ and ‘operator’ to recognize that such terms do not refer exclusively to a human, but may, in fact, include an automated system.”

Although self-driving trucks haven’t caused any fatal accidents in the United States, semi-autonomous cars have been implicated in at least four deaths over the past few years.

“Despite deaths, injuries, and crashes involving a variety of semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicle technology across the country, DOT continues to insist that eliminating regulation is the way to achieve safety,” the Center for Auto Safety said in reaction to last year’s announcement.

Trump Administration’s Attack on Trucking Regulations

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone following the Trump administration’s ongoing campaign to gut commercial trucking regulations.

Shortly after President Trump took office, the FMSCA abandoned a proposed rule that would have required all commercial drivers to undergo medical screening for Obstructive Sleep Apnea, a frequently undiagnosed condition that increases the potential for a driver to fall asleep at the wheel.

Next month, the agency also plans to release weakened Hours of Service Regulations for commercial truck and bus drivers. These rules help prevent fatigue-related crashes by, among other things, limiting the number of daily and weekly hours a commercial driver can work or operate a vehicle.

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