WASHINGTON - The Trump administration is advancing a program to let some younger workers drive big trucks across state lines, signaling an openness to lowering the driving age more broadly amid a massive trucker shortage.
The federal government currently requires commercial truck drivers to be at least 21 to drive a large truck across state lines. But a Department of Transportation pilot program will soon allow some drivers as young as 18 to drive cross-country for private trucking companies. Specifically, the program would be available to some members of the national guard and others with military experience.
"Later this year, FMCSA will begin implementing a pilot program to allow 18- to 20-year-old drivers that have training and experience in certain military occupational specialties to operate commercial vehicles in interstate commerce," said Duane DeBruyne, a spokesperson for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, a division of DOT.
House Republicans introduced a bill in March to lower the commercial truck driving age to 18 for anyone driving interstate who passes the required tests. While President Donald Trump has not announced a stance on the bill, his administration is using the pilot program and other research efforts to lay the groundwork for lowering the age.
The truck driver shortage is expected to hit 63,000 this year, according to the American Trucking Associations. While some companies are raising pay to lure more people into the industry, it doesn't seem to be enough for a job that often requires people to be away from home for weeks at a time.
The shortage is causing delayed deliveries and higher prices at the store as companies pass on the higher costs to consumers.
"America depends on you," Trump told truckers at the White House last year. "No one knows America like truckers know America."
Many large trucking companies are urging Trump and Congress to change the minimum driving age as one potential solution to the problem, although safety advocates say it would be a mistake and that big companies just want cheap labor. Congress originally directed DOT to start a pilot program for under 21 year-olds with military experience in the 2015 FAST Act (Fixing America's Surface Transportation Act). The Trump Administration is working to make it happen.
Eighteen-year-olds can get a commercial driver's license in most states already, but they are limited to driving inside state lines. It's a quirk that means a 19-year-old can drive a semi-trailer truck several hours from Alexandria, Virginia, to Roanoke, Virginia, but he or she can't drive a few minutes from Alexandria to Washington, D.C.
"We already say 18-year-olds can drive anywhere inside a state. All this bill does is say after they've completed a rigorous safety program of 400 total hours driving with somebody else, then they can cross state lines," said Rep. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., a lead co-sponsor of the DRIVE-Safe Act, which now has 54 co-sponsors, including three Democrats.
Hollingsworth says he has been flooded with calls and visits from restaurant owners, retailers and manufacturers who have "horror stories" of not being about to get their products delivered right now. He thinks the change would help get more people interested in trucking.
Driving an 18-wheel truck is one of the most dangerous professions in the United States, which is why lowering the commercial driving age to criss-cross the country remains controversial.
Motor vehicle drivers aged 16 to 19 are nearly three times more likely than people over 20 to fatally crash, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At TDDS Technical Institute, an independent truck driving training school in Lake Milton, Ohio, opinion is mixed on whether lowering the age is a wise move. Some argue that 18 and 19-year olds are allowed to drive trucks inside state lines, so what is the difference in crossing the border?
"I support lowering the age," said Rick Rathburn Jr., the owner of TDDS. "We get a lot of calls from 18 and 19 year olds that are interested in trucking."
Rathburn Jr. points out that many truck driving jobs offer middle-class pay, but people graduating high school can't access these jobs. Instead they go into construction or retail and forget trucking is an option when they turn 21.
Montell Myers is a 21-year-old who grew up playing with Hess trucks and came all the way from North Carolina to enroll in TDDS. He was working a $9 an hour job at a go-kart track and wished he had been able to get into trucking sooner.
"At a minimum, I hope to make $65,000. I want to do flatbed trucking so I can get extra money," Myers said. "I feel like I could have been here at 18."
Others say teenagers aren't ready for the responsibility that comes with driving an 18-wheeler that's often carrying 80,000 pounds of cargo on highways and narrow city streets.
"I like the 21-year-old regulation," said Gordon Zellers, a doctor who does the required physicals for TDDS students seeking their CDL. "I always think, do I want this 18-year-old driving near my grandchildren?"
The DRIVE-Safe Act tries to address the safety concerns by mandating extra training before a driver under 21 can cross state lines on their own.
Truck drivers typically attend a special school like TDDS for several weeks and then take a written and behind-the-wheel test to earn their CDL. After that, drivers usually spend a few weeks with a veteran driver learning the job and equipment.
Under the bill, a young driver would not be able to drive on their own across state lines until he or she completed at least 240 hours of "apprentice" driving that's supervised by a veteran driver. The apprentice also can't exceed 65 mph.