Drivers as young as 18 years old could be allowed to drive 80,000-pound trucks between states if Congress goes along with a proposal backed by the U.S. trucking industry that safety advocates say would be a disaster.

The plan, part of highway legislation that’s before the Senate, would greatly increase the number of teenagers behind the wheel of big rigs.

“We should be considering how to limit teen truck drivers rather than expanding them into such a dangerous program,” said Jackie Gillan, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Many states permit 18-year-olds to drive the big trucks, but federal law prohibits them from operating across borders. In those states, younger truck drivers are four- to six-times as likely as 21-year-olds to be involved in fatal crashes, Gillan said.

The trucking industry says there is a shortage of drivers and sees the measure as a way to expand the pool of eligible operators. By 2017, there could be more than 250,000 unfilled trucker jobs, according to a forecast by FTR, an industry research firm.

Reducing the driving age would give companies like Knight Transportation Inc., Swift Transportation Co., YRC Worldwide Inc., FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc. more applicants, lowering recruiting costs, Bloomberg Intelligence analyst Lee Klaskow said.

Contract Costs

Shippers could get lower rates as contract costs have gone up 3 percent to 5 percent this year, he said. That rise “is driven by truckers looking to pass on the cost of attracting and retaining drivers,” Klaskow said.

Democratic Senators Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Edward Markey of Massachusetts say they are trying to get the provision removed from the six-year highway bill when it is debated by the full Senate. The Commerce Committee approved it July 15.

The Senate began preliminary debate on the bill Thursday, although it wasn’t clear when votes on amendments will take place. Unless Congress acts, authority for highway construction expires at the end of the month.

The idea of lowering the minimum age for truck drivers has been kicking around for years. In 2002, the Bush administration looked at graduated licensing that would create classifications for younger truckers with certain restrictions.

Elevated Risk

At the time, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said that there was “unequivocal scientific evidence of a markedly elevated crash risk among people younger than 21 who drive large trucks” and no basis for believing that graduated licensing would reduce that danger. The Arlington, Virginia-based research group remains opposed to the policy shift as written into the Senate bill, spokesman Russ Rader said.

The legislation would require the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to create a six-year pilot program allowing 18-year-olds to drive commercial vehicles, including buses, across state lines.

Since 48 states already allow younger commercial drivers to drive within state boundaries it makes sense to allow the practice nationally, American Trucking Associations spokesman Sean McNally said. The legislation is narrowly tailored to permit states to enter agreements with each other under the program supervised by the FMCSA, he said.

Stringent Licensing

Commercial drivers are already subject to more stringent licensing than those who drive passenger cars, McNally said. The program would give people just out of high school, a demographic with a high unemployment rate, an opportunity in an industry that needs drivers.

“Like many industries, we have a looming issue with baby boomer retirements,” McNally said. “This could be a way to address that.”

Graduated licensing has worked well for passenger-car drivers, and it’s a common-sense way for truckers to get more responsibility as they get more experience, according to the ATA. States would be free to put restrictions on the younger truckers, such as limiting the types of cargo carried, or keeping to specific routes or times of day, the group said in a letter to senators July 21.

“Right now a young adult could drive a truck from El Paso, Texas to Dallas –- a distance of more than 600 miles –- but couldn’t cross the street to deliver that same load from Texarkana, Texas to Texarkana, Arkansas,” Bill Graves, the Arlington, Virginia-based trade group’s president and chief executive officer, said in the letter.

Those arguments don’t convince Gillan of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, a Washington-based group. If 48 states permit 18-year-olds to drive for intrastate commerce, maybe that’s the problem the Senate should be looking at, she said, because the statistics show those drivers to be more dangerous.

“Look at the figures,” Gillan said. “Now we’re saying let’s take a really bad idea and expand it? Who else other than the trucking industry could get by with that logic?”

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