FMCSA's Martinez offers cautiously positive view on testing 18 to 21-year-old interstate drivers

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Raymond Martinez, the administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, gave mostly tentative answers to questions directed at him by House of Representative committee members Tuesday, but did appear to be generally supportive of the idea of at least exploring the idea of allowing drivers 18 to 21 to cross state lines in a truck.

Martinez appeared before the Subcommittee on Highways and Transit of the House of Representatives Transportation Committee.

Duncan Hunter, the Republican representative from California who is a co-sponsor of legislation that would allow that age category to drive interstate trucks, pressed Martinez on his stance regarding lowering the interstate limit from 21 to 18. Hunter said all lower 48 states allow drivers between 18-21 to drive a truck, which means that an 18-year-old could drive a truck between San Diego and Sacramento, but not San Diego to Reno, although both are about the same mileage.

Martinez said he could not explain how that "fits logically, and I think it deserves investigation." "I would say that those who are in that population who had a CDL are probably safer than the general population, but it is the general population that is disproportionally involved in crashes and fatalities."

Martinez, who took office in March, at several points talked about the FMCSA steps toward implementing a part of the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation act, the so-called FAST act, passed in the late stages of the Obama administration. (The hearing focused on the FAST act).

That provision allows an easier passage for a military veteran with truck driving experience to become fully qualified to drive back in the U.S. with fewer hurdles than if he or she was starting the process from scratch. Martinez said the FMCSA is in the final stages of a pilot program to implement that part of the FAST act. That pilot program may produce data or a structure that can then be used to run a pilot program for drivers between 18-21 seeking to drive across state lines, Martinez said.

Hunter said he has seen data that shows that male drivers between the ages of 16-20 have safer driving records than those between 20-24. "We can only move with the information provided to us," Martinez said. He reiterated that a "structured" program like that underway for returning military veterans could be used to determine the safety of drivers between 18-21 driving interstate. "So it is not the general population you're dealing with," he said. "It is regulated."

"It is worth exploring," Martinez said as Hunter wrapped up his questioning. "I am not unalterably opposed. I would be eager to work with Congress and safety advocates."

As for the military transition program, Martinez said in his prepared testimony that the program allows states "to waive the skills test for military personnel with experience operating heavy vehicles in the military, allowing certain military personnel to simply 'exchange' their military vehicle license for a CDL." The count on the number of returning military members who have used the process is in excess of 23,000, Martinez said.

The issue of ELDs received little questioning from the panel members. In his prepared remarks, Martinez said there had been about 300,000 driver inspections conducted since April 1--the start of hard enforcement of the ELD rule--and less than one percent of them did not have an ELD device.

Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), in questioning that was slightly sarcastic about ELD waivers, referred to waivers that have been given to the film industry and wondered whether that break also extends to adult films. While Martinez simply said he didn't know about the adult film break, he did say that all waiver exemptions are dealt with by asking the petitioner when they will come into compliance with the rule, so that it is not an open-ended exemption. "Many of these (exemption requests) are still pending, and it is unfortunately taking time to evaluate," he said. "But all are evaluated on their own merit," he added, and hoped that various pending requests, like that from the already-exempted agricultural sector, will be completed soon.

Rep. Jeff Denham (R-California), author of the so-called Denham amendment that restricts individual state changes to hours of service rules, questioned Martinez on how such variations impact the work of FMCSA. Martinez appeared to back the goal of the Denham amendment, which was passed by the House of Representatives in April as part of the Federal Aviation Administration authorization bill but has not yet gained Senate approval.

The hours of service rule is something "we struggle with every day," Martinez said. "I can't imagine how much more complicated it would be if states adopted their own rest break and hours of service rules, and it would highly complicate the landscape for enforcement as well. We like uniformity."

One thing Martinez was clear on several times: there is a driver shortage, a term he used several times.

In another line of questioning, Martinez again talked about the military program, and mentioned several other initiatives: bringing young drivers on as intrastate drivers and training them continuously, and "encouraging them that...they could spend a lifetime in a good career."