Industry divided as Congress considers allowing teens to drive trucks interstate

As the trucking industry deals with a worsening driver-retention crisis, Congress is considering a pilot program that allows 18 to 20-year-olds to drive interstate. The proposed legislation would allow 3,000 young drivers at a time to drive tractor-trailers across state lines. It has exposed “a divide in the trucking sector,” the Wall Street Journal reported.

While it would deepen the pool of CDL-A drivers available for hire, some say the program fails to address the reasons drivers are leaving.

“If you’ve got holes in the bucket, no matter how much water you put in the top of the bucket, if it’s running out as fast at the bottom as it is at the top, you haven’t really resolved that issue,” Todd Spencer, president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, told WSJ.

Currently, most states allow those under 21 to get a CDL-A, but federal law forbids them from driving across state lines. Those who support lowering the federal age limit for interstate say young drivers in states like Texas and California are already driving long distances. And, the program requires 400 hours of training – making it even safer. The American Trucking Associations said it hopes the program will demonstrate that young people can safely drive interstate.

But highway-safety advocates say teenagers are more likely to get into crashes and the supervision on OTR routes is often more lax.

“They call it a pilot program, but it’s basically a foot in the door to change the rules for their imaginary driver shortage,” Russ Swift, a board member of the Truck Safety Coalition advocacy group, told WSJ.

Derek Leathers, a chief executive at a large carrier in Nebraska, told reporters that the hardest jobs to fill are for long-haul truck drivers. His carrier, like almost all others, is offering higher pay to attract more drivers. But he said regular home time is a big incentive and some drivers say it’s about more than pay and home time – life on the road is tough.

One seasoned truck driver told reporters that bringing in younger drivers won’t make the long hours and the days away loved ones any easier; “What 17-year-old is going to look at the trucking industry and say, ‘I want to do that when I’m 18’?”