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Trucking orgs split over under-21 apprenticeship pilot program

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Updated Feb 6, 2022

The trucking industry is split in its opinions of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s 18-20-year-old Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program, based on feedback the agency received during a brief public comment period last month.

The apprenticeship program was included in the Biden administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law that was signed into law in November.

The very notion of such a program was categorically opposed by a majority of Overdrive readers after early versions of the legislation that ultimately created the under-21 interstate pilot program were unveiled in 2021. Six in every 10 readers opposed any such program, while 3 in 10 supported the notion either totally or with limitations. The apprenticeship program itself includes one probationary period of at least 120 hours of on-duty time, of which 80 hours must be driving time in a truck, followed by a second probationary period that must include at least 280 hours of on-duty time with at least 160 hours of driving time. Only after such time will an under-21 participant be granted the ability to haul interstate in the program.

For the pilot program, which will last up to three years, FMCSA will allow no more than 3,000 apprentices to participate at any one time.

Several trucking industry trade groups representing larger trucking companies voiced support for the establishment of the pilot program, as expected, given their support of previous "Drive Safe Act" legislation that called for similar programs. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and truck safety groups were among those who filed comments in opposition to the proposed program.

“We believe that licensing under-21 drivers for interstate commerce will lead to more crashes, injuries and fatalities involving large trucks, especially if the Apprenticeship Pilot Program (APP) is implemented without establishing comprehensive safety oversight,” OOIDA said in its comments. “Before moving forward with the program, we urge the agency to include additional data collection metrics that will enhance the quality of the information gathered during the APP and will help ensure that the pilot program accurately determines if under-21 drivers can perform safely throughout the country.”

OOIDA added that FMCSA needs to incorporate more specific data collection methods “that will better determine whether under-21 drivers can safely operate in interstate commerce.”

[Related: 'Not really what we need': Training regs may miss the mark, but this small fleet's doing it right]

The group also mentioned studies that show higher crash rates among younger drivers.

“Proponents of the APP have advocated that under-21 drivers already travel hundreds of miles within individual states but are forced to stop at state lines because of ‘problematic’ regulations,” OOIDA added. “This ignores the fact that younger drivers crash at higher rates. Many studies indicate worse driving records and deadlier crash statistics for under-21 intrastate drivers when compared with older, more experienced drivers. OOIDA believes that examining crash data is the most reliable method to evaluate safety performance and should be a vital component of APP analysis. Apart from the APP, FMCSA must continue reviewing the safety performance of under-21 intrastate drivers.”

OOIDA also questions the ability of smaller trucking companies to participate in the program due to insurance costs and risks.

“In all likelihood, only self-insured carriers will be willing to provide coverage for under-21 interstate drivers,” OOIDA said. “The technology and monitoring requirements also remain detrimental for smaller carriers. These limitations will restrict the opportunities available for younger drivers entering the APP and could provide inherent economic advantages for self-insured carriers. Before initiating the APP, FMCSA should seek alternative data collection methods that will expand participation beyond just self-insured and large carriers. This will result in a more representative final data analysis.”

The Truck Safety Coalition, Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH) and Parents Against Tired Truckers filed a joint comment, noting they are “vehemently opposed” to the proposed program. “This program is not in the public interest and defies all available evidence on record for teen driving safety,” the groups said.

The groups cited the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which determined that 19-20-year-old commercial vehicle drivers are six times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than those over the age of 21.

The safety groups also believe that FMCSA should collect data from states where under-21 drivers have been driving intrastate rather than establishing a new program to collect similar data.

“Before embarking on an ill-advised federal interstate pilot, the pre-existing abundance of teen trucking data in these 49 states and motor carrier internal records must be collected and analyzed by FMCSA,” the groups wrote. “Although intrastate drivers are likely to be subject to fewer scheduling and fatigue issues as over-the-road interstate drivers, the desk study proposed would provide a beginning to addressing the research goals outlined in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Apprenticeship program and do so without recklessly endangering the motoring public.”

The American Trucking Associations, which has long supported efforts to expand interstate hauling authority to under-21 drivers, said the program “will enhance transportation safety, provide a number of young Americans with the launching pad to a rewarding career in the trucking industry, and bolster a workforce that has been essential in responding to the COVID pandemic.”

ATA did, however, raise concerns over the burden placed on carriers by requiring them to create a registered apprenticeship through the Department of Labor. "We would suggest DOT may need to explain why the substantial added burden of registering with DOL – for those who have not previously been part of the registered apprenticeship program – is necessary as a condition precedent and what data supports that requirement," ATA said. All the same, in a message to ATA members January 21, association Vice President for Workforce Policy Nick Geale laid out that groundwork for the requirement's eventuality was being laid. "ATA has been approved as a registered apprenticeship sponsor for heavy duty truck drivers by the U.S. Department of Labor," Geale told members.

"Registered Apprenticeship" status with the DOL comes with certain requirements, including paying apprentices while on the job, providing a combination of on-the-job and classroom training, forming an internal mentorship program to provide one-on-one support to apprentices, and more.

The Truckload Carriers Association also voiced its support for the program, but raised concern over certain data reporting requirements outlined in the proposal. TCA said reporting safety event data recorded by safety systems installed on the trucks used by apprentices “will be very difficult to satisfy, particularly for smaller carriers that do not have an extensive staff to handle this reporting." 

In some ways echoing OOIDA's commentary, TCA noted "this could dissuade smaller carriers from participating in the program, but we also anticipate it being a concern for larger carriers that do not have a system in place to consolidate the data in an easily digestible and sharable way.”

The Drive Safe Coalition, comprised of more than 100 organizations involved in trucking, shipping and more, also supported the program but voiced similar concerns over requirements for carriers that the coalition said could limit participation in the program. The coalition suggested FMCSA remove the requirement that carriers register through the Department of Labor as apprenticeships and reduce the amount of monthly data carriers are required to submit.

Finally, the Commercial Vehicle Training Association said it supports the program and offered suggestions to FMCSA on how to make the program more successful. CVTA suggested that FMCSA fix state DMV testing delays by providing funding for more state examiners and expanding third-party testing. The group also suggested that the DOT, DOL and others promote truck driving as a “life-changing career opportunity.”

CVTA noted that while the apprenticeship program is “a step in the right direction,” FMCSA should make it permanent. “We need a sustained outreach and training programs to fortify our supply chain and provide steady and good paying job opportunities for young people,” CVTA added.

[Related: 'Entry Level' truck driver training: With FMCSA's new regs looming, old-school training ways survive]

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