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The latest Senate transportation bill would reportedly make it legal for freight companies to hire teenagers to drive big trucks. Some advocates are now saying that this, among other dangerous new policies, have no place in federal law.
A bipartisan amendment from Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and minority member Todd Young (R-IN) would reportedly establish a pilot program to train 3,000 new drivers between the ages of 18 and 20 to pilot the largest trucks that roll through U.S. communities. The nonprofit Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety recently sent an open letter to senior officials on the Senate Commerce Committee, calling this out, as well as a slate of others, which they’re calling troubling policies included in the Surface Transportation Investment Act aimed at loosening restrictions on freight carriers.
This age group, advocates argued, is between four and six times more likely to be involved in fatal truck crashes than older commercial drivers. Cathy Chase, president of the Advocates, reportedly said: “Teen drivers just don’t have as much experience as older ones, and they tend to overestimate their driving capabilities. You put them behind the wheel of an 80,000 pound truck, and that’s a recipe for disaster.”
Despite substantial evidence that shows teenage drivers are more likely to speed, kill pedestrians and bicyclists, and be involved in fatal crashes themselves, most states permit teenagers to obtain commercial licenses and drive professionally within state borders — including California. In California, you must be at least 18 years of age to drive commercial motor vehicles within state lines only. Drivers must be at least 21 years old to drive commercial vehicles across state lines and to haul hazardous materials which require placarding or operate vehicles with double or triple trailers.
Citing a chronic truck driver shortage that they say is making it difficult to move the goods upon which people rely, major trucking-industry groups have been reportedly pushing for years to open interstate travel to the youngest drivers — and they’re hoping that enshrining the pilot into law through the surface transportation reauthorization process. And being part of the Surface Transportation Investment Act, this can potentially make it more likely to stick for the long haul.
According to Transport Topics, the California Trucking Association said initial indications attribute the shortfall of the state’s truck drivers to be as high as 30%. The possible reasons the association presented as to why this is happening include an aging workforce and some drivers possibly choosing to collect unemployment benefits rather than return to work during the pandemic. However, some say the freight sector’s hiring woes are up for debate. In 2019, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the freight sector actually didn’t face significant challenges attracting workers compared to any other blue-collar job — although the industry does struggle with driver retention, in part because of low pay.
Some advocates say that the country’s traffic-violence crisis may be a factor, too. Trucking and delivery driving is one of the top 10 most dangerous professions, with on-the-job death rates outranking those of firefighters, police officers, and heavy construction workers. Moreover, crashes are the leading cause of death for the group. The average life expectancy of a male trucker in the U.S. is reportedly just 61, compared to 78 for the average man.
“[The retention crisis is] created by the unsafe conditions that truck drivers are forced to work in,” Chase added. “They have to drive 11 hours a day, they don’t have the safety tech in all the trucks, there’s no required testing and remediation for obstructive sleep apnea — it just sets us up for a perfect storm of truck crashes on our highways. These bills are the perfect opportunity to make significant advances in all those areas, but they are failing.”
And instead of fixing the existing problems with the industry, other elements of the Surface Transportation Investment Act can worsen those working conditions even further. The bill reportedly includes an amendment that would exempt livestock haulers from rules about how long a trucker is allowed to remain on the road without rest, and also would exempt mid-sized truck manufacturers from installing automatic-emergency-braking technology on their vehicles, despite the fact that it will be required on bigger rigs soon.
Chase explained that Class Three through Six trucks are exactly the ones that are roaming through our neighborhoods every day, delivering the packages. It’s a lethal loophole, and when taken together with the other carve outs in this bill, it’s shredding the fabric of our federal safety standards,” she said.