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FMCSA is phasing in a new program that allows drivers under the age of 21 to participate in interstate commerce, provided they complete an apprenticeship program with their fleet.

Caveats of FMCSA's under-21 driver program

March 21, 2022
There are huge aspects of the federal pilot—like the administrative burden—that small fleets must weigh carefully.

Is the juice worth the squeeze? This is a phrase I have uttered time and again on just about any task that could prove to be difficult in nature and which makes me question whether the ends justify the means.

It is that very notion that motor carriers across the country are taking into consideration as the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) moves on its highly anticipated pilot program that will allow for drivers under age 21 to operate across state lines in interstate commerce.

Having such a lengthy tenure at the Truckload Carriers Association, I remember when we, as an industry, really became dedicated to driving this issue. The opportunity to expose our industry to a demographic that could seriously consider the truck driving profession as a career out of high school made perfect sense—and it still does today.

See also: What carriers need to know about FMCSA’s driver apprenticeship program

In an environment highlighted by a supply chain crisis the likes of which the nation has never seen, finding a group of people that could possibly make a dent in the driver shortage can be viewed as one plausible solution. Carriers across the country have expressed an interest in participating in this effort.

Before I continue, it’s fair to say that 18- to 20-year-olds already can earn their commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs) and become professional truck drivers. They’ve shown this by operating within intrastate commerce—in other words, along routes within their own states. The new rule regarding entry-level driver training has taken effect, creating a new training standard that will focus on making the best trained, safest drivers on the road today even safer.

The difference between the younger driver of today and the younger driver of tomorrow is the ability to cross boundaries that only exist on maps. In the land of ambiguity, the definition of “intrastate commerce” is trade, traffic, or transportation in a state that is not interstate commerce, a clarification of which only Captain Obvious would be proud.

Now, since the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, FMCSA is taking up the younger driver issue that was previously abandoned because of the change of administrations. The renewed pilot program would allow for the under-21 demographic to be better trained, operate technologically advanced, safety centric equipment, and do so in a manner that places them in an environment that pairs them with a veteran trucker who aids in their training efforts on the road as qualified driver mentors. Clearly, this is a path that would be beneficial for obtaining a rewarding career in a profession that wants them.

Now, of course, not everything is as simple as it sounds, and there seems to always be a caveat. Like I said, an 18- to 20-year-old can get a CDL and operate in an intrastate environment, but to cross state lines, the question regarding the administrative burden could turn this molehill into a mountain for some carriers.

We know that fleets come in all shapes and sizes. Creating a cumbersome process for tracking the safety performance of a driver population that has been trained to operate and earn their CDL under rules that didn’t previously exist, just to cross state lines, is one that smaller fleets may not have the time or resources to address. Administrative standards created to move forward on a pilot program could represent a huge hurdle for carriers that wanted to participate in such a program—only to realize that the task before them is monumental.

I get it, this is not a scenario where the industry hands over the keys to a truck and says “happy trails” to a 19-year-old. Whether you operate in interstate or intrastate commerce, that just doesn’t happen regardless of any picture that opponents to this rule try to paint. However, because a state line is introduced to the equation, data tracking and administrative upheaval could factor into the end game.

The reality is, much like every carrier operating on our highways, no driver is the same. A 19-year-old can operate as safe or safer than a more seasoned counterpart, a tendency that some may refer to as a “natural” of sorts. To be fair, the pilot program is designed to accommodate only 3,000 drivers, which, in the context of qualified truck drivers in this country, is minimally small, but we must begin somewhere.

The professional truck driver is an essential job in this nation and across the globe, so the merits of taking on a profession like this should be encouraged. As this program moves forward, our industry will continue to serve at the front lines of this nation to position the most qualified of drivers, regardless of age, to safely and efficiently move the essential goods and services that everyone needs.

About the Author

David Heller

David Heller is the senior vice president of safety and government affairs for the Truckload Carriers Association. Heller has worked for TCA since 2005, initially as director of safety, and most recently as the VP of government affairs. Before that, he spent seven years as manager of safety programs for American Trucking Associations.

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