The US government is introducing an apprenticeship program aimed at addressing the shortage of qualified truck drivers in the industry. This program will enable individuals as young as 18 to operate large interstate semi-trucks.

The initiative comes in response to the ongoing driver shortages in the trucking industry, which have been exacerbated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. In October, the head of the American Trucking Association stated that the industry required an additional 80,000 drivers. However, safety advocates have expressed concerns about the program, arguing that it places inexperienced drivers in control of some of the largest and heaviest vehicles on the road, potentially posing a safety risk.

Currently, 49 states and Washington DC issue commercial driver licenses to individuals under 21, allowing them to drive semis within large states like California and Texas, but not across state lines. The new program will select candidates from this pool of younger drivers and provide them with training to enable them to operate across state lines.

Under current federal regulations, only individuals aged 21 or older are permitted to drive semi-trucks across state borders. The Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program will allow those at least 18 years old, holding a clean state-issued commercial driver’s license, to drive interstate trucks under the direct supervision of an experienced driver.

Although the program was initially proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in September 2020, it was not implemented at that time. However, it became a requirement under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which was signed into law in November. According to a notice in the Federal Register, the program will soon become operational.

The FMCSA will grant specific exemptions to the normal age restrictions for each young driver admitted to the program. Trucks involved in the program will be required to have certain safety technologies, including automatic emergency braking, forward-facing video cameras, and a top speed limit of 65 miles per hour. Apprentice drivers will not be permitted to operate trucks with more than one trailer or trucks carrying hazardous materials.

The supervising driver must be at least 26 years old and possess a minimum of five years’ experience driving semi-trucks. Additionally, the supervising driver must have had a clean record with no crashes or traffic violations for at least two years before being eligible to train the younger driver.

Since the program was first proposed, the Truck Safety Coalition has raised objections, citing the potential hazards associated with teenage drivers. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety provided statistics from a University of Michigan study to CNN, indicating a 500% increase in injury crashes among truck drivers under the age of 21 compared to the overall truck driver population.

Cathy Chase, the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety president, also voiced her opposition to the program. She argued that it made no sense to allow one of the most dangerous driving demographics to operate 80,000-pound rigs. She suggested alternative solutions to address driver shortages, such as improving job attractiveness through increased pay and reduced driving hours.

When considering hiring young Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) drivers, there are several potential issues to be aware of:

  1. Lack of experience: Young drivers may have limited experience behind the wheel, especially in the context of operating large commercial vehicles. This can lead to a higher risk of accidents, as they may not have developed the necessary skills and judgment required for safe driving in different situations.
  2. Immaturity and impulsiveness: Younger individuals, particularly those in their late teens or early twenties, may still be in the process of maturing emotionally and may exhibit impulsive behavior. This can increase the likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors on the road or failing to adhere to safety regulations.
  3. Limited knowledge of regulations: CDL drivers must comply with numerous federal and state regulations governing hours of service, cargo handling, vehicle inspections, and more. Young drivers may be less familiar with these regulations and less likely to understand their importance, potentially leading to non-compliance and legal issues.
  4. Difficulty managing stress: Long hours on the road, tight deadlines, and demanding schedules can be stressful for any driver. However, younger individuals may have less experience in managing stress effectively, which can impact their ability to make sound decisions while driving and increase the risk of accidents.
  5. Higher insurance costs: Insurance providers often consider young drivers to be higher risk due to their lack of experience. Consequently, hiring young CDL drivers may result in higher insurance premiums for the company, increasing operating costs.
  6. Limited job commitment: Younger individuals may be more prone to job-hopping or changing career paths as they explore various options. This can lead to higher turnover rates among young CDL drivers, creating recruitment and training challenges for companies.
  7. Regulatory restrictions: Some states impose additional requirements or restrictions on young CDL drivers, such as limitations on the type of vehicle they can operate or the distance they can travel. These regulations can impact operational flexibility and limit the job opportunities available to young drivers.

To mitigate these potential issues, companies can implement rigorous training programs, mentorship initiatives, and monitoring systems to ensure young CDL drivers receive proper guidance and support. Additionally, comprehensive background checks, thorough interviews, and driving assessments can help identify responsible and reliable candidates.