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Trucking industry pushes to allow teens to drive long-haul 18-wheelers

Parents are sometimes thrilled and sometimes horrified by career choices their teenagers make. One choice Los Angeles moms and dads haven’t had to consider when their son or daughter turned 18 was long-haul truck driver.

Federal regulations have kept drivers under 21 from driving big rigs across the nation and even from driving across state lines. Drivers 18-20 can drive tractor-trailers within California, however, or within whichever state they live in.

Hard to find

But trucking companies are having trouble finding people willing to take on the often grueling job of driving 18-wheelers over long distances. A provision in the infrastructure bill approved by the U.S. Senate last month would create a pilot program allowing 18- to 20-year-olds to drive big rigs across state lines.

The idea of 18-year-olds behind the wheels of 80,000-pound tractor-trailers would worry more than just their parents. It’s cause for concern for everyone who understands the challenges inexperienced drivers face. Studies have shown they’re often slower to recognize traffic and road hazards and take appropriate steps to avoid involvement in a motor vehicle crash.

Turnover cited

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association represents independent owners of small fleets and single trucks. It says there’s no real shortage of truckers, as many large trucking companies claim. The group says the problem is driver turnover, not driver supply. Too many new drivers give the job a try and leave for other lines of work.

Highway safety advocates warn that a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows that teens are far likelier to crash than older, more experienced drivers.

Hoping for young and safe

The American Trucking Associations, an organization that represents trucking companies, says it hopes the test program finds that teenage drivers can safely operate 18-wheelers over long hauls.

Proponents of lowering the age limit say there’s plenty of evidence in big states such as California and Texas that young drivers can be safe truckers who don’t cause commercial truck accidents. Consider this: California is 800 miles from the upper north to lower south, whereas a trucker assigned the US Route 20 haul from Oregon to Boston would have to navigate 3,365 miles – more than four times California’s longest route.

Some industries point at the trucking industry’s struggles to fill positions as a factor making it more difficult for businesses to restock their inventories and recover from recent economic challenges.

Labor experts weigh in

According to the Wall Street Journal, some labor experts warn that expanding the trucking industry’s pool of potential drivers will have an unintended consequence: it’ll enable the industry to cycle through drivers at an even higher rate. Companies will compete for business by cutting costs and keeping truck drivers on the road longer.

No one yet knows what the pilot program will show, but we do know that crashes involving large commercial trucks are among the most devastating wrecks possible, often resulting in severe injuries and fatalities.