The trucking industry is facing a difficult challenge: a supply of truck drivers that can’t keep up with demand. The American Trucking Associations (ATA) estimates that if things don’t change, the industry will be short 105,000 drivers by 2023.
Some things are difficult to change. Convincing more Americans to leave their careers behind to become truck drivers, a job often characterized by long hours alone in the cab of an 80,000 lb. truck away from home and family, is a tough sell. To be sure, the industry has been hard at work to do just that by constantly raising driver pay. In fact, Indeed, the nationwide employment website, lists the average base salary of a driver at $62,162. Tenured drivers can make six-figure salaries. Not bad for a job that doesn’t require a college education.
Trucking companies are focusing on improving work conditions to increase driver retention, too. Investments are being made in in-cab technology that makes a driver’s job safer and more comfortable. Many trucks now provide some of the same creature comforts of home. But the problem persists.
A big reason is that federal rules require a driver to be at least 21 years old to cross state lines in a commercial motor vehicle (CMV). This means that to attract drivers, the industry must recruit those who have already spent three years learning another trade. This is a steep hill to climb. Proposals to change this rule have faced stiff opposition from public interest groups who point to dated research, largely based on the experience of car drivers, indicating that younger drivers are less safe than their older counterparts. New research has emerged however, showing that CMV training and driving experience is more important than age when considering crash risk.
The DRIVE-Safe Act, recently reintroduced in the House and Senate by a bipartisan group of nine Representatives and eight Senators aims to safely expand the pool of potential truck drivers by tapping into a younger generation through an extensive apprentice program marked by an in-depth probationary period and strong performance measures. The two-step program requires at least 400 hours of on-duty time and 240 hours of driving time spent with another experienced driver in the cab, providing timely coaching and mentorship.
In September 2020, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) likewise proposed a younger driver pilot program that would mirror the requirements of the DRIVE-Safe Act. The proposed program would complement the existing Military Commercial Driver Pilot Program that allows younger drivers trained to drive CMVs in the military to operate in interstate commerce. These two programs combined offer great potential to gather the data needed to justify lowering the minimum age to operate a CMV in interstate commerce.
As always, the safety of our truck drivers and the motoring public is the first priority. But, if we don’t act soon, the driver shortage will continue to balloon and freight movement in a country that relies on just-in-time shipments may begin missing its delivery window. Professional truck drivers understand that their career, not to mention their safety and that of those around them, is on the line each time they get behind the wheel. This is true regardless of age. With the right training and experience safety can be achieved while supplying the industry with fresh recruits of young drivers looking to join the ranks of essential workers delivering the goods on which Americans rely.
The DRIVE-Safe Act and the proposed Younger Drivers Pilot Program are the right vehicles to accomplish this mission and they couldn’t come at a more critical juncture. Now we need carriers and drivers to step up and support the programs by contacting their congressional representatives and offering their assistance to FMCSA.
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