What’s the right question?

Sept. 3, 2015
Why aren’t younger drivers allowed to operate in interstate commerce?

Why are we considering putting teen truckers behind the wheel? Interestingly, that’s the question being asked in many circles, not only across this industry but also in the mainstream media. And after appearing in our own industry publications, Yahoo News, Fortune and NPR are now asking that question too.  

Quite honestly, our industry publications, these national news outlets, and even those engaged in the public debate are asking the wrong question. Why haven’t we allowed teen truckers to operate in interstate commerce, and what has taken so long to get to this point? Our industry is faced with a growing driver shortage epidemic, and many are projecting a dramatic increase in the nation’s freight soon to come, so we find ourselves wondering who will be sitting behind the wheel to deliver it.

Many folks are acting as if this is breaking news or a hot-off-the-press story; in reality, this story has been around for years. TCA had petitioned FMCSA for a pilot program around Y2K.  I mention this to establish a timeline. Younger drivers have been operating in intrastate commerce long before that petition even arrived at the agency doorstep.

Inherently, in order to more easily ascertain the issue at hand would be to describe it like this. As TCA’s director of safety & policy, I can stand on the roof of our office building and see Washington, D.C., and its monuments, and then turn 90 deg. to the right and see straight into Maryland. Neither Maryland nor D.C. are more than five miles from TCA offices, however, as a 19- or 20-year-old commercial driver, I would be unable to drive that distance with a fully loaded trailer. The hypocrisy lies in the fact that I can turn around and travel for five hours to the southwest corner of Virginia and back to Alexandria in another five hours under the guise of intrastate commerce.

While the mainstream media seems to be looking for views and clicks on their websites, and safety advocates that oppose this platform decry the thought of a younger driver, neither group can deny that younger drivers have been around for years. They each argue that a teenager is not wholly responsible for operating an 80,000-lb. commercial motor vehicle, but in reality the exact opposite is true. If it wasn’t, I am certain we would see movement at the state level to prohibit these younger drivers from operating in an intrastate fashion. Perhaps what this industry needs is exactly what has been proposed—an opportunity to collect data on these drivers that either prove or disprove their ability to operate a commercial motor vehicle in a manner that is as safe or possibly even safer than those who currently operate in interstate commerce.

Younger drivers would not be tossed a set of keys to a truck and provided with a destination. A mandate on younger drivers would insist that they be endlessly trained in a manner that has already made our commercial driver population the safest operators on our roadways. Instead of viewing this as a negative, which much of the mainstream media is seemingly doing, maybe drivers under the age of 21 can be exactly what this nation needs—an opportunity to regenerate our driving pool with a group of talented individuals.

David Heller, CDS, is director of safety and policy for the Truckload Carriers Assn.  He is responsible for interpreting and communicating industry-related regulations and legislation to the membership of TCA. Send comments to [email protected].

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