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WASHINGTON — A bill that would pave the way for commercial drivers younger than 21 to drive trucks across state lines received a resounding endorsement from an organization that represents freight industry interests nationwide during a Feb. 4 Senate hearing.
American Trucking Associations President Chris Spear applauded legislation sponsored by Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.) that would lower the age requirement of 21 to 18 for interstate commercial driving.
“It’s really not about age. It’s about training,” Spear said during his appearance at the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee hearing, noting that the measure could help the industry tackle its shortage of truck drivers.
He shared his perspective. “This is a step toward safety,” he said.
Spear argued further that it defied logic for drivers equipped with state commercial licenses, obtainable at most states at 18, to be allowed to drive significant distances intrastate but not interstate. Additionally, he noted that individuals younger than 21 serving in the military participate in training that often involves heavy vehicles and machinery.
“How are we willing to allow 18-year-olds to go off and do that, but we can’t teach them how to cross state lines in a Class 8 [truck]? This bill is responsible. It’s safety-minded. It’s the right thing to do,” Spear said, emphasizing that the bill would require drivers to meet myriad training requisites and nearly a dozen performance benchmarks.
The DRIVE-Safe Act, sponsored last year by Young and Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), aims to address industrywide concerns about a shortage of truck drivers. The bill specifies that a driver in an apprenticeship would be required to complete 120 hours of on-duty time. Of that time, no fewer than 80 hours must consist of driving time in a commercial vehicle. Additionally, for successful completion of the 120-hour probationary period, an employer must determine the apprentice competent in interstate, city traffic, rural two-lane, and evening driving; safety awareness; speed and space management; lane control; mirror scanning; right and left turns; and logging and complying with hours-of-service regulations.
“We have this substantial driver shortage in this country,” Young said during the hearing. “And, progressively this threatens the long-term economic stability of our country. We want to maintain this longest period of economic expansion in American history.”
Young encouraged colleagues to consider the measure’s provisions when they update a 2015 federal highway law. The Commerce Committee leadership has not announced when it intends to consider that law’s reauthorization. The law, known as the FAST Act, expires in September.
“Providing this workforce development opportunity for young drivers will lead to more comprehensive training, expanded career options and access to higher paying jobs,” Tester said in a statement from last year. “This bipartisan bill will also provide a big boost to Montana communities that rely almost exclusively on trucks to move goods in and out of the state.”
The legislation, however, was met with pushback at the hearing. Dawn King with the Truck Safety Coalition questioned the measure’s central argument pertaining to safety.
As she put it, “There is ample research showing that teen drivers have significantly higher crash rates and are much less safe than older drivers. There is absolutely no evidence that introducing teen drivers will in any way improve safety.”
Lewie Pugh, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, criticized the measure from a different angle, noting: “There is no driver shortage.”
Federal regulations currently require drivers to be 21 or older to operate commercial vehicles in interstate commerce. According to ATA, the industry is short nearly 61,000 truck drivers, and it would need to hire about 1.1 million new drivers in the next 10 years to meet increasing demands.
Separately, Spear expounded his view about potential benefits from modernizing freight corridors, and said ATA applauds the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s notice of proposed rulemaking on hours-of-service rules. He explained in prepared remarks, “New flexibilities should be based on sound evidence and sufficient data to ensure safety.”
“Data that supports how changes to [hours of service] improve safety is — and should always be — foremost in any rulemaking. Changes that lack the proper data and science supporting a safety benefit should not be considered,” Spear explained.
The agency’s proposal aims to provide commercial drivers additional flexibility with their 30-minute rest break and with dividing their time in the sleeper berth. It also would extend by two hours the duty time for truckers encountering adverse weather, among other proposed revisions.
Sgt. John Samis with the Delaware State Police and Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance president was at the Senate hearing and told the panel hours-of-service rules bring with them a “significant challenge for the enforcement community.”
In prepared remarks he told senators: “Recognizing that the motor carrier industry is diverse, it is critical that the regulations account for significant variances within segments of the industry, while keeping exemptions to a minimum, in order to ensure uniform enforcement.”
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