This story appears in the Aug. 29 print edition of Transport Topics.
Federal trucking regulators have announced plans to conduct a three-year pilot project to allow truckers between the ages of 18 and 21 with military truck driving experience to operate in interstate commerce.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said the pilot, a FAST Act mandate, would compare the safety record of the younger drivers sponsored by a participating carrier with a control group of drivers 21 and older to determine whether age is a critical safety factor, according to a Federal Register posting Aug. 22.
Despite some federal research and industry attempts dating to the 1970s, the pilot marks the federal government’s first attempt to gather data to determine whether younger truck drivers are as capable behind the wheel as their older counterparts.
The agency is seeking public comments on the planned pilot through Sept. 21.
If younger drivers prove to be as safe as those over 21, the trucking industry has said that the nation’s shortage of commercial motor vehicle drivers could be mitigated by recruiting young people as drivers who could be approached immediately after graduation from high school — before they become involved in another career.
Drivers between 18 and 21 are permitted to drive trucks intrastate but not allowed to cross state borders.
FMCSA said that a driver participating in the pilot program would not be permitted to transport passengers or hazardous cargo, or operate a vehicle in a “special configuration.”
The agency also plans to create a working group to consult with the agency in conducting, monitoring and evaluating the pilot program.
FMCSA conceded that because many service personnel leave active duty while close to or older than 21, it is likely that most study group members would be reservists or National Guard members. To have a statistically valid sample of drivers younger than 21, approximately 200 study group participants are desired, FMCSA said.
The pilot would require participating carriers to install and operate electronic logging devices on all vehicles operated by study and control group drivers.
According to FMCSA, factors that would be collected from each participating driver before and during the pilot program would include details of any commercial motor vehicle driving experience and demographic information, crashes, any traffic citations or warnings received while driving a commercial vehicle, violations or warnings listed on a commercial motor vehicle inspection report and detailed 24-hour records of activity to include hours-of-service logs or electronic records.
Rob Abbott, vice president of safety policy for American Trucking Associations, said the pilot has some potential to “create a pathway for people from high school into truck driving.”
However, ATA is concerned that the pilot plan as allowed by Congress would provide a “very, very small universe of people,” he said.
Abbott said ATA prefers a graduated licensing system that would help interstate trucking operators recruit young drivers as apprentices.
Efforts to persuade federal agencies and Congress to allow young drivers behind the wheel of heavy trucks in interstate commerce date to the 1970s, when the Federal Highway Administration, FMCSA’s predecessor agency, first examined the subject.
However, a 1975 literature review and analysis of crash statistics by the agency concluded that most drivers under the age of 21 “lack the general maturity, skill and judgment that is necessary in handling commercial motor vehicles.”
Subsequently, in late 2000, the Truckload Carriers Association petitioned FMCSA to conduct a younger-driver pilot program.
“Motor carriers, truck driver training schools, a trade association and an insurance company joined in the petition asking FMCSA to authorize a pilot program to determine if CMV drivers under age 21 could operate CMVs safely in interstate commerce,” FMCSA said.
Under the 2000 petition, which was denied by FMCSA, each younger driver would have attended a truck driver training school approved by the Professional Truck Driver Institute for a minimum of 22 weeks and receive eight weeks of training in a motor carrier’s “driver finishing” program.
Dave Heller, TCA’s director of safety and policy, said the trade group supports the pilot and has been looking for many years to locate data on young drivers.
“We’ve called every insurance company and every DOT, and there’s just nothing out there,” Heller said.
There are concerns that using only military drivers will limit the size of the sample, he added.
“They’re going to have to search long and hard to find these drivers to actually study,” Heller said. “Most within that age range are still serving.”