Once again, members of Congress are attempting to let teenagers operate large trucks across state lines. There are clear and compelling data showing that drivers younger than 21 are less safe, higher risk and more dangerous than older, more experienced drivers. There is also widespread opposition to lowering the minimum age for interstate trucking. Nonetheless, a select few large trucking companies have convinced four lawmakers to introduce the DRIVE-Safe Act (H.R. 5358) and dozens of others (including Maine Rep. Bruce Poliquin) to sign on to it.
My son Jasen and his friend Dustin were killed in a preventable truck crash in Nevada on Oct. 14, 1993. Both corporals in the United States Marine Corps, Jasen and Dustin were driving to work at the Marine Corps’ Mountain Warfare Training Center in Pickel Meadow, California, at O-dark-30 when a semi-truck stalled across both lanes of the highway after the driver, who was barely 18 at the time, attempted to make an illegal U-turn. Their car collided with the center of the teen trucker’s trailer, traveling underneath the trailer, killing these two young men instantly.
It was later revealed that this teen truck driver was on a learner’s permit from California, which was not valid in Nevada, and that the legal owner-operator of the vehicle was asleep in the sleeper berth at the time of the crash. Under current laws and regulation, this is forbidden. If the DRIVE-Safe Act is passed, however, this may become the norm.
The bill includes language that sounds nice but, in reality, will greatly diminish truck safety.
In the legislation, the term “apprentice” means “an individual under the age of 21 who holds a commercial driver’s license.” This means truck drivers as young as 18 would be allowed to transport goods from South Dakota to Florida. This completely ignores research that shows that commercial motor vehicle drivers ages 18 to 20 are four to six times more likely to be involved in a crash than more experienced drivers are.
It is also ridiculous to think that a high schooler will perform as well as a long-haul truck driver would on routes requiring him to be away from his friends and family for several weeks at a time.
A homeowner would not want an 18-year-old electrician messing around with their house as they learn the ropes. A person under criminal investigation would not want their attorney getting their training as they also file motions to keep them out of prison. And supporters of this bill would not be OK if a prospective surgeon wanted to satisfy a minimum number of training hours by operating on their loved ones.
The bill also states that young truck drivers must be accompanied by an “experienced driver” in their cab. The authors’ idea of “experienced driver” is a person age 21 or over who has held a commercial driver’s license for at least two years and has a year of commercial motor vehicle operating experience. This does not constitute experience.
Rather than looking to employ less-safe teenage truck drivers to cover up the staggeringly high trucker turnover rate of over 90 percent, members of the industry and lawmakers should focus their efforts on addressing the underlying factors leading to high churn. Unpaid detention time, unrealistic routes and predatory lease-purchase agreements motivate truck operators to engage in dangerous driving behaviors and discourage drivers from continuing in this profession.
Turnover rates will not come down as teen truckers encounter the same issues that have led to an exodus of older drivers who have devoted their lives to trucking. Likewise, truck crashes, which are at their highest levels in the past 20 years, as well as the resulting deaths and injuries, will not abate as shippers and mega motor carriers opt for the less experienced, less expensive drivers in lieu of safe, properly compensated operators with decades of experience.
Another solution to the perceived shortage would be to make trucking a more appealing profession for women. Currently, just 6 to 7 percent of truck drivers are women. So rather than attempting to permit less safe, less mature, less reliable teenagers to operate trucks that could weigh more than 80,000 pounds, hire more women above the age of 21, who are statistically safer drivers than men ages 18 to 20.
The DRIVE-Safe Act was given a purposely deceptive name to fool the public, as it will do nothing to promote driving safely and will only make matters worse.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Russ Swift of Wales is co-chair of Parents Against Tired Truckers. He has been advocating to make trucking safer since his son, Marine Cpl. Jasen Swift, was killed in a crash involving a teenage truck driver.