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Feds fast-tracking controversial trucker pilot program

4,500 carriers expected to recruit drivers under age 21 to haul freight across state lines

A long-awaited but controversial initiative that will allow young truck drivers to haul freight across state lines is seeking fast-track status from the White House.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has asked the Office of Management and Budget for review and emergency approval of a three-year apprenticeship program to allow carriers to employ drivers between the ages of 18 and 21 for hauling freight across state lines, according to a request filed Thursday.

Current regulations require drivers to be 21 or older to operate a truck in interstate commerce. Drivers under 21 can haul within a state subject to state laws.

FMCSA expects the pilot, the authority for which was approved under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and previewed under the Biden administration’s Trucking Action Plan unveiled in December, to receive 44,945 applications from 4,500 motor carriers and 40,445 drivers.

Presuming OMB approves the project – FMCSA has requested it be approved by Jan. 13 – data collected from participants may help settle the question of whether allowing younger drivers on the road is a safety hazard or boosts carrier revenue by filling cab seats – or both.

Initiatives allowing drivers younger than 21 to haul freight interstate has received strong support from the American Trucking Associations as a way to increase the eligible driver pool. ATA President and CEO Chris Spear argued at a Senate hearing in 2020 that current laws allow a driver under 21 to drive hundreds of miles in California but do not allow a driver to drive 10 miles from Providence, Rhode Island, to Rehoboth, Massachusetts. “That’s got to be the dumbest policy I’ve ever seen,” Spear said.

At the same hearing, however, Dawn King, president of the Truck Safety Coalition, testified that research examining intrastate (as opposed to interstate) commercial truck drivers show those under the age of 19 are four times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes, and those between 19 and 20 are six times more likely.

“Additionally, the qualifications for a teen truck driver passing the probationary periods are left entirely to the discretion of the employer who is incentivized to get the driver on the road as soon as possible,” said Catherine Chase, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, at hearing on Capitol Hill in November. “No standard tests or evaluations given by an independent party are required.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association has also opposed loosening restrictions on under-21 drivers on safety grounds and pointed out insurance risks. However, OOIDA President and CEO Todd Spencer has said he is less opposed to a pilot program such as the one being proposed by FMCSA.

“While not perfect, it’s better than fully opening up licenses to teen drivers,” Spencer said last year of provisions included in legislation introduced in both the House and Senate over the last several years.

Under the FMCSA-led program, apprentices who currently have a CDL will complete two probationary periods, during which they may operate in interstate commerce only under the supervision of an experienced driver in the passenger seat – i.e., a driver who is not younger than 26, has held a CDL, has been employed for at least the past two years, and has at least five years of interstate commercial driving experience.

The first probationary period must include at least 120 hours of on-duty time, of which at least 80 hours are driving time in a truck. During this period the employer must determine competency in:

  • Interstate, city traffic, rural two-lane and evening driving.
  • Safety awareness.
  • Speed and space management.
  • Lane control.
  • Mirror scanning.
  • Right and left turns.
  • Logging and complying with rules relating to hours of service.

The second probationary period must include at least 280 hours of on-duty time, including not less than 160 hours driving time in a truck. Competency during this period includes:

  • Backing and maneuvering in close quarters.
  • Pretrip inspections.
  • Fueling procedures.
  • Weighing loads, weight distribution and sliding tandems.
  • Coupling and uncoupling procedures.
  • Trip planning, truck routes, map reading, navigation and permits.

Apprentices completing the second probationary period can begin operating trucks in interstate commerce unaccompanied by an experienced driver.

Data collected from the pilot will be used to report on several issues, including an analysis of the safety record of apprentices compared to other drivers; a comparison of safety records of participating drivers before, during and after each probationary period; and a comparison of each participating driver’s average on-duty time, driving time and time spent away from the home terminal before, during and after each probationary period.

Click for more FreightWaves articles by John Gallagher.


  1. I have been driving trucks since 1992. These laws will make trucking more dangerous and drive more accomplished veteran drivers out of the industry. Truckers are treated like dirt from the trucking companies to the customers and even police. No wonder veterans are flocking from the industry. Companies only focus on recruitment and do not bother with programs that promote retaining the existing drivers. The main issue is that nobody bothers to get input from the drivers who are actually living the lifestyle. When they are asked for input they are consistently ignored. I make a decent living with this occupation, but still consider quitting daily because of the absurd ignorance of society.

  2. I do agree with the previous gentleman’s post. I would also like to add; yes I also believe there are 18-21 year olds who are capable of realizing the responsibility it takes to not only keep themselves alive and others while driving a semi truck and trailer, while doing a very dangerous job of delivering goods across this country. However, it’s not for everyone. Plus, non “Commercial” drivers, (again, not all) need to be educated on how to drive with respect to working PROFESSIONAL drivers. Also, I think that All DRIVERS, just like the professionals (CDLs) should be required to have a medical screening every 2 years and every year if there is a medical issue. I also think there is a HUGE PROBLEM with the drop off and shipping points where Professional drivers sit and wait as time run out on their daily drive time. Maybe, the government needs to give incentives to these warehouses, shipping yards, etc. to hire 18-21 year olds to get the shipments ready on time and unloaded on time! Oh, in these major cities that have “carpool” lanes…why not have lanes for commercial drivers only as well as people needing to realize that these trucks can not stop, turn or move into another lane like a regular vehicle. I’m sure EVERYONE just wants to get where they are going and home safely. When there are wrecks… it hurts us all.

  3. If they had these training requirements right now and over the past 20 years, they wouldn’t need another demographic to exploit. We have trainers with a few months experience training other drivers at these mega-fleets who will likely be first in line for this program since they are self-insured. the REAL Women in Trucking association does not support this and especially fast tracking it. The training fleets cannot provide safe trainers as it is. How about spending some of this infrastructure money aimed for the Trucking Action Plan to fund re-training for aging seasoned drivers to teach new drivers in community college programs and in first year regional driving lanes where they will be safe, and the veteran drivers can pass on their legacy. What is the point of recruiting, recruiting, recruiting and you have very few safe trainers? There are students sitting in motels for weeks at a time right now waiting on a trainer.

  4. As a young man of 22 years of age, I began my career as a truck driver, working for a rendering plant. It was an offal job (pun intended), but it gave someone my age the opportunity to break into the trucking industry. I had been driving box trucks for a couple of years before that, but diesel engines, combination vehicles, air brakes, etc., were all new to me. Although it was intrastate driving, it was a major change from driving box trucks. I was trained for an entire week and declared ready to operate on Texas highways, and in major Texas cities. That was exactly 49 years ago this January.

    That was before the insurance industry lobbied congress to legislate itself into our wallets. It is my humble opinion, that all the efforts put forth by congress, the trucking industry, and any administration, to make young people between the ages of 18-21 legally able to join the ranks of interstate drivers, is just dollar signs for the insurance industry, without whose approval, these efforts will die on the vine. An industry that is supposed to be insuring risk, and which uses every trick in the book to minimize both risk and payouts, because it has legislative backing, will be the real winner, if these efforts come to fruition.

    The first losers, will be the trucking companies whose bottom line will shrink because of higher insurance premiums. That is even before any incident or accident caused by, or involving, an 18-21 driver. Since trucking companies are not in business to lose money, they will have to increase their rates. In a carrier’s market like it is today, those rates increases will show up as higher prices for consumers, therefore fueling inflation. Thus, consumers become the greatest losers of all! We the people will get shafted yet again! I think there are 18-21 year-olds that are fully capable of reinforcing the ranks of interstate commercial drivers. The military considers them capable of much more important functions than this. So, this has nothing to do with not giving them the opportunity to help fill the need. It is all about how much ransom we will have to pay to give these young people the legal right to operate a CMV in interstate operations.

John Gallagher

Based in Washington, D.C., John specializes in regulation and legislation affecting all sectors of freight transportation. He has covered rail, trucking and maritime issues since 1993 for a variety of publications based in the U.S. and the U.K. John began business reporting in 1993 at Broadcasting & Cable Magazine. He graduated from Florida State University majoring in English and business.