One solution to the truck driver shortage: 18-21 year olds

The cleverness of the WHEEL Act resides in the kind of “under-21 truckers” they’re talking about: only those with military driving experience. (Image Jason Fouts)

The cleverness of the WHEEL Act resides in the kind of “under-21 truckers” they’re talking about: only those with military driving experience. (Image Jason Fouts)

With all the current safety requirements circling around the ELD guidelines, you might be surprised that there is currently a proposal that would expand a pilot program that allows 18-to-21-year-olds to drive across state lines. Under current federal law, individuals in this age group may obtain a commercial driver’s license in each of the 48 contiguous states, but not cross state lines.

Perhaps, though, the effort really comes as no surprise. For one, ELD implementation isn’t particularly popular among small trucking companies, and it isn’t even top priority (although it does rank number two). The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) recently released its top priorities moving into 2018, and number one is the driver shortage issue.

For another, one of the major findings of the 2017 ATRI report is the trucking industry’s aging workforce. The issue “remains a significant structural issue affecting the available pool of qualified truck drivers. A demographic analysis conducted by ATRI in 2014 showed that more than one in four truck drivers are 55 years and older.”

Interestingly, the shortage remains a sticking point in the industry regardless of better wages for drivers with the current positive market conditions. Derek Leathers, president and CEO of Werner Enterprises, spoke in a recent panel at the 2017 ATA Management Conference and Exhibition.

“The real issue we are faced with is a ‘quality’ driver shortage, those that can meet the quality expectations we all have," he said.

Enter New York congresswoman, Rep. Claudia Tenney (R-N.Y.), who recently introduced the Waiving Hindrances to Economic Enterprise and Labor (WHEEL) Act. As outlined in the proposal, the pilot program would last three years. Then, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) would compare the safety records of the pilot group to a group of 21-and-older drivers with similar training and experience.

The cleverness of the plan resides in the kind of “under-21 truckers” they’re talking about: only those with military driving experience.

In general, the trucking associations are behind the plan with few reservations. Truckload Carriers Association (TCA) expresses concerns in its comments as to whether there are enough 18-20-year-old military-trained drivers to participate in the program. Werner Enterprises says it wouldn’t have a problem getting enough drivers to participate in the program, but says the participants would most likely be limited to National Guard and Reservists.

Safety institutions, on the other hand, are strongly opposed. Freightwaves reached out to the Truck Safety Coalition (TSC). They call the legislation “a misguided attempt to address a perceived shortage of truck drivers, which is, in actuality, a driver retention and turnover problem.” They say it will only make our roads less safe and “do nothing to address issues like entry-level driver training, unpaid detention time, and available and safe truck parking.”

The group also observes that comparing it to current rules that allow truck drivers age 18-20 to drive within states holds little credibility since they “have crash rates that are four to six times higher than those of mature truck drivers.”

To corroborate TSC’s concern, neuroscience has come to a consensus on the development of the brain. It’s a subject on which many legal questions depend.

In many respects, 18 is an arbitrary number. Legally, you can fight for your country. You can be tried as an adult. You’re no longer a minor. You’re free to be your own boss and leave home. On the other hand, you still can’t drink (legally). You can drive a truck, so long as it’s in state, but not from state-to-state.

DerekLeathers-Quote_clear.png

“The real issue we are faced with is a ‘quality’ driver shortage, those that can meet the quality expectations we all have.”

--Derek Leathers

Those are legal issues. The science shows us the brain, more specifically the pre-frontal cortex, isn’t done developing until an average age of 25—longer in males than in females. The pre-frontal cortex is essentially responsible for attention, complex planning, decision making, impulse control, logical thinking, organized thinking, personality development, risk management, and short-term memory. Other than that, it’s not responsible for much.

Also, one can look at the rates of insurance companies. They’re typically higher for drivers under 25. There’s a reason for this.

However, with all that said, on the surface at least, the pilot program would seem to be thoroughly vetted, and not even put into effect for well over two years from now—and in combination with the FMCSA’s Entry-Level Driver Training (ELDT) rule that went into effect on June 5, 2017.

That rule, which has a compliance date of February 7, 2020, states that no entry level driver can take a Commercial Driver License (CDL) skills test without first completing a mandatory knowledge and behind-the-wheel training program. The three-year compliance window provides time for commercial driver training entities to come into compliance with the rule’s requirements and be certified and listed on FMCSA’s Training Provider Registry.

While the pilot program would hardly solve the driver shortage single-handedly, it just might be a contributing solution. For the veterans willing to give trucking a shot at an early age, they’ll have plenty of opportunity to prove they’re responsible, capable and the quality driver the industry seeks.

To date, Tenney’s bill has seven cosponsors: Reps. Clay Higgins (R-Louisiana), Garret Graves, (E-Iowa), Robert Latta (R-Ohio), Henry Cuellar (D-Texas), David Young (R-Iowa), Bruce Poliquin (R-Maine) and Rick Allen (R-Georgia). The bill has been referred to the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure’s Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

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