A pilot program unveiled by the U.S. Transportation Department is bringing increased attention to the issue of allowing younger people to drive trucks in interstate commerce.

The plan calls for allowing 18- to 20-year-olds to drive trucks across state lines, provided they possess the military equivalent of a Commercial Driver’s License and are sponsored by a trucking company participating in the new program. The program would not allow these drivers to transport passengers or hazardous materials. Currently, the minimum age to drive a truck in interstate commerce is 21, while those under 21 can drive big rigs within many state borders.

This results in situations, for example, where someone could legally drive a commercial truck all the way across a state as big as Texas, but can’t drive a truck from Kansas City, Missouri, to Kansas City, Kansas, just on the other side of the Missouri River.

However, discussions during last week’s Trucking Associations Executive Council (TAEC) annual meeting pointed out a growing issue with so-called “intrastate” operations. Because much freight hauled within a state is deemed to be “interstate freight” because of its origin and/or destination, legal and liability questions have arisen about this freight being hauled by under-21 drivers.

During the proposed three-year pilot program, which will be managed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), the safety records of these younger drivers will be measured against a control group.

Before the pilot program can officially begin, FMCSA is required by law to allow a 60-day public comment period on the proposal, which was published in the July 6 edition of the Federal Register.

Supporters of allowing younger interstate truck drivers say federal regulations need to be changed because the industry is facing a driver shortage. They also point out the advent of new technologies such as advanced collision warning and mitigation systems, lane departure warning systems, automatic braking, speed limiters, on-board video monitoring, stability control, automatic transmissions, electronic logging devices, and telematics mean trucks are safer to operate than ever before.

However, a coalition of groups that includes the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and a number of safety-related organizations says concerns about a driver shortage are largely myth, and actually are more about high turnover in one sector of the industry, the truckload sector.

Critics also say allowing younger drivers raises several issues, including the question of whether insurance providers will provide coverage to them and the carriers they work for (or if they do, how much it will cost).These same critics also say research shows younger drivers are less safe than their older, more experienced colleagues.

The American Trucking Associations (ATA) is already on record supporting plans allowing younger interstate truck drivers, even though a number of state trucking associations, OOIDA and individual carriers oppose the younger driver concept. In March, ATA announced its support for congressional legislation, known as the DRIVE Safe Act, short for Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy Act.

Introduced by Reps. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) and Trey Hollingsworth (R-Ind.), the bill would train younger drivers far and above current standards for older drivers, according to the ATA.

Under the legislation, once a driver has met the requirements to obtain a CDL, he or she would begin a two-step program of additional training, which includes rigorous performance benchmarks that each candidate must achieve. The program would require these drivers to complete at least 400 hours of on-duty time and 240 hours of driving time with an experienced driver in the cab with them. All trucks used for training in the program must be equipped with safety technology, including active braking collision mitigation systems, video event capture, and a speed governor set at 65 miles per hour or below.

So how do you feel about allowing 18-to-20-year-olds to drive across state lines in interstate commerce? Sound off on the PrePass Facebook page.

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