Should teens drive semi trucks? If it helps the driver shortage, yes, feds say

Ted S. Warren/AP
·4 min read

Eighteen-year-olds will be able to drive eighteen-wheelers across state lines under a new apprenticeship program established by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Department of Transportation.

It’s a decision that has jump-started controversy among safety advocates, according to reporting from the Associated Press, but one necessary to resuscitate a lagging supply chain issue and dwindling number of truckers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to U.S Transportation Secretary Pete Butigeg, 90% of truck drivers turn over annually in some areas of the trucking industry in America, signifying the need for driver recruitment.

The Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot will allow drivers from ages 18-20 to drive semi trucks across state lines as long as there’s an experienced driver in the passenger seat. The program was originally proposed by the FMCSA on Sept. 10, 2020, but was not established at the time.

Despite it being enacted over a year after it was originally proposed, supply distributors across the country have been in support of the program in the hopes it will help relieve the struggle of moving goods across the country.

“The National Grain and Feed Association recognizes and supports FMCSA’s role in fostering transportation efficiency and highway safety, and appreciates its efforts to provide greater flexibility for CMV drivers,” the NGFA wrote to the FMCSA in 2019 regarding a pilot program for drives ages 18-20 across state lines. “An efficient and safe freight transportation system is vitally important to the grain, feed, processing and export industry.”

UTZ Quality Foods voiced their support for the pilot program in 2019, too, citing that it would help provide a more stable trucking workforce.

“Increased transportation costs attributed in large part to America’s truck driver shortage are taking their toll on the snack food industry and the larger American economy,” Chief Executive Officer Dylan Lissette wrote to the government. “Food manufacturers are now having to pass these costs on to their consumers.”

While enabling teenagers to drive semis through multiple states may help aid in the staffing shortage of drivers, the decision to give teens the green light may contradict statistics that point to higher numbers of crashes within that age group, and what that could mean for other drivers on the highway, according to AP.

Federal documents report that groups who oppose the pilot program included the National Transportation Safety Board, the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways, the National Safety Council, the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, Parents Against Tired Truckers, and the Truck Safety Coalition.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among teenagers aged 16-19 more than any other age group. Teen drivers within that age group are nearly three times as likely as drivers ages 20 or older to be in a fatal crash.

Additionally, there are certain teens who are at a significantly higher risk compared to others for motor vehicle crashes: Males, teens driving with other teenagers or younger adult passengers, and newly licensed teens.

Other factors that can endanger young drivers include nighttime and weekend driving, not using seat belts, distracted driving and speeding, according to the CDC.

The apprenticeship program has put in certain regulations to help ensure that teen drivers will be better equipped on the road, according to the proposal report from the department. Motor carriers that are interested in participating in the program must apply and submit monthly data on apprentice driver activity, including how many miles traveled, safety outcomes including crashes and violations, and other supporting information.

Factors that may prohibit drivers from being apprentices include having more than one license, having a license suspended, having any conviction for a violation of military, state or local law relating to vehicle traffic control, or been under the influence of alcohol in a motor vehicle as prescribed by state law, according to the report.

Apprentices aged 18-20 can cross state lines during 120- and 280-hour probationary periods. They must have a driver older than 26 in the passenger seat, and the trucks will use an electronic braking crash mitigation system, a forward-facing video camera and driver’s speed will be limited to 65 mph, according to the federal report. The report defines an apprentice as someone under age 21 who already holds a Commercial Driver’s License.

The pilot program was a requirement within the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), which was signed into law on Nov. 15, 2021, according to the Department of Transportation.

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