Feds Ponder Young Driver Program

Should the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration sanction a pilot program to train drivers between the ages of 18 and 21 to drive truck in interstate commerce? If so, what might such a program look like? In coming months, FMCSA officials will ponder those questions as they sort through some 1,400 written comments received during a comment period on the Truckload Carriers Association-sponsored proposal to establish a pilot project to train young truck drivers.

The young driver program is one way to address a growing shortage of drivers, according to TCA. Some industry groups estimate the industry will need some 80,000 new drivers over the next few years, and they note that finding drivers has been a problem for several years. Many truckload companies complain that by the time many potential drivers reach the age of 21, they have already established themselves in another trade.

“The construction trades are not prevented from hiring 18- to 20-year-olds now,” Hirsch noted. “Nor are the plumbers or the painters or anybody else. That’s the problem. We are restricted as far as interstate commerce is concerned.”

Under TCA’s proposal, a consortium of about 10 truck driver training schools and 20 fleets will carefully select, screen and train about 1,000 drivers who are under the federal age requirement of 21. The program would include a minimum of 48 weeks of classroom and driving instruction, plus supervision. The selected young drivers would receive a minimum of 22 weeks training at a truck driving school, followed by eight weeks of training in a motor carrier’s finishing program. The finishing program would include instruction and on-the-job training to further develop a young driver’s skill level, all under the direction of an experienced driver trainer. Drivers in the program would then drive team for 18 weeks with an older, more experienced driver.

The end result, according to TCA, will be a young driver trained to drive a big rig in a responsible, mature fashion.

A brief survey of some of the comments filed with FMCSA on the proposal shows a less-than-enthusiastic response from some industry groups, while others support the plan.

One key concern for many of those filing comments is the skill and safety record of young drivers as a whole. Statistically, young automobile drivers are involved in more accidents than more mature drivers are. According to comments filed by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, the state’s statistics show that “the at-fault accident rate is highest for the youngest drivers and decreases as drivers get older.” California, and most other states, allow 18- to 21-year-olds to drive commercial motor vehicles within the state. The California DMV’s concern “is that the pilot expands the issuance of CDLs to the highest risk group by including younger drivers between 18 and 21 years of age.”

Veteran drivers who responded to the proposal also expressed concern letting younger drivers drive cross-country.

“I believe that the industry should look at other ways of solving the so-called diver shortage,” Stephen Campbell of Punxsutawney, Pa., said in his comments. As a driver and driver instructor, Campbell said he thought 21 was too young for most truck drivers.

Phillip Kiser, a 17-year veteran driver from Kings Mountain, N.C., agreed. In his comments, Kiser called the proposal an “atrocious” idea. “A person of my experience and knowledge of the road would not feel safe with these kids behind the wheel, so why take a chance of putting them out there with an unsuspecting public?”

James Hogan, a driver from Roanoke, Va., was even more blunt in his comments. “I think this (proposal) is nothing less than crazy and should not have been considered as anything but a waste of your time and my money.”

But TCA’s proposal is designed to reach only the best young drivers, according to TCA president Robert Hirsch.

“I appreciate the concerns people have,” Hirsch said. But he added there is “no real comparison” between studies on young drivers and the types of drivers this program will train. Many of the studies cited by the proposal’s critics refer to drivers with no more training than the few weeks they get in high school. “These are two different things, ” Hirsch said. “There is absolutely no comparison. This is an extensive, 48-week program. The whole program was designed, very intentionally, to only allow only the best of the best to get out there. Clearly, statistics do not support the fact that every single 18-year-old driver or 19-year-old driver or 20-year-old driver is unsafe. Many are. We don’t want those people. We wouldn’t accept those people.”

Wendy Davis, a 19-year-old trucker who drives intrastate in Montana said she felt that with the right kind of training, younger drivers such as she would be fine on the road. Davis said her family has been in the trucking business for 40 years, so she learned about trucking from an early age. But she thought the program would be a good idea, if the proper training was included. “I believe that if an 18-year-old is mature enough to fight for his or her country, they should be old enough to drive a truck anywhere in the country with the proper training,” she said.

Comments filed by Dart Transit pointed to the training component of the proposal as its best selling tool. “The training is greater than the typical driver now receives,” wrote Dart special counsel James C. Hardman. “It will be more stringent, longer in duration, and more closely monitored than any other existing programs.”

Other comments argued the driver shortage had less to do with the labor pool and more to do with the working conditions. “There is an ample supply of qualified drivers over the age of 21, but many of those drivers are not willing to work under current conditions,” wrote Russell Swift, co-chairperson of Parents Against Tired Truckers. “Improving working conditions is a much better solution than permitting 18- to 20-year-old drivers to operate in interstate commerce.”
The FMCSA will evaluate the comments and decide whether to proceed with the TCA-proposed pilot program, according TCA’s Hirsch.

“The next step is for FMCSA to decide whether or not to publish another notice which would articulate exactly what their monitoring program would be like for the pilot,” Hirsch said. “There may be some additional details they feel might be appropriate to include in the protocols of the program. Then, I would imagine they would be giving consideration to that as well, based on the comments they have received.”

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