Trucking industry wants to lower age to drive big rigs. Safety advocates call it risky

Trucking industry wants to lower age to drive big rigs. Safety advocates call it risky

Fears about driver safety can be addressed by adding training requirements for apprentice drivers aged 18-20, as well as enhanced safety equipment on trucks used in training, said Bill Sullivan, executive vice president of advocacy for the American Trucking Associations, the industry’s largest trade group and a supporter of the lower age limit.

Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia allow drivers younger than 21 to drive large trucks within state boundaries, according to the ATA. The federal interstate age limit is 21 to drive large trucks.

“One of the biggest opportunities here is if we can reach young people and find a way for young men and women to safely train and become a truck driver to drive a truck in interstate commerce,” Sullivan said. “We have to find a way to bring more talent into the industry, especially women, minorities and others.”

More than 2 million people drive large trucks in the U.S., according 2019 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The trucking industry is short 61,000 drivers, the ATA says, and says new drivers are needed to bolster an aging workforce.

The COVID-19 pandemic cut into the pipeline of new drivers when trucking schools closed for several months and restrictions at state motor vehicle offices slowed the process of getting commercial driver’s licenses, said Kevin Burch, who was president of Jet Express Inc. before the Dayton trucking company was sold to Martin Transportation Systems.

Burch, a former ATA chairman and now vice president of sales and governmental affairs for Martin, attended the group’s mid-year conference earlier this month along with about 300 trucking company owners and executives.

“Trust me, driver shortage was No. 1,” he said.

Trucking is a key industry in the Dayton region, dubbed the “Crossroads of America” with its logistics and manufacturing businesses and intersection of two major cross-country interstates — I-70 and I-75.

Ohio is projected to have 9,628 annual openings for heavy and tractor trailer truck drivers through 2028, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.

“We are in a dire need of professional drivers nationwide, as well as in the Miami Valley region,” Burch said. “We were the ‘heroes’ during the past 12 months of COVID-19, delivering America’s goods not only on time but also safely.”

The DRIVE Safe Act, a bipartisan bill pending in Congress, would allow large truck interstate travel by drivers aged 18 to 20.

The proposal would require apprentice drivers under 21 to complete 120 hours of on-duty time, with no fewer than 80 hours driving a commercial motor vehicle, and another 280-hour probationary period accompanied by an experienced driver.

The apprentice must have a commercial driver’s license, and their employer would be responsible for determining their competency. Apprentices involved in an accident would not be disqualified, but would undergo additional training overseen by their employer.

The training vehicle must have an automatic transmission, active braking collision mitigation system, forward-facing video equipment and limited speed of 65 mph. Those safety enhancements would not be mandatory for drivers who have completed their apprenticeship.

A letter supporting the bill sent to congressional committees in April was signed by 117 companies and associations representing a variety of industries, including trucking, manufacturing, agriculture, retail and restaurants.

“Seventy percent of the nation’s freight is carried by commercial trucks, and while demand is projected to increase over the next decade, the threat posed by the driver shortage stands to disrupt the continuity of the supply chain,” the letter says.

The industry will need to hire about 110,000 drivers annually over the next decade due to growth in demand and driver retirements, according to the letter.

“I’m a proud cosponsor of the DRIVE Safe Act, which will help address workforce needs for the trucking industry, while opening up good-paying jobs for graduating high school students,” said U.S. Rep. Warren Davidson, R-Troy. “We let 18-year-olds enlist in the Army, so I see no issue with giving them the opportunity to earn a commercial driver’s license. As we move out of the pandemic, I hope we’ll pass this bill to help not only the trucking industry, but the wider economy.”

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, supports the proposal as a way to fill trucking job openings, spokeswoman Emmalee Cioffi said.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, is aware of the driver shortage that threatens bottlenecks of fuel and other goods, according to his spokesperson.

“If younger men and women have a path to trucking careers, Sen. Brown wants to make sure it’s done safely,” the spokesperson said. “Right now, the minimum driving age for intrastate CDL is 18 in Ohio. We must act carefully before expanding that to interstate commerce.”

Fatalities in crashes involving large trucks are increasing, puzzling safety experts, especially as safety technology becomes more common on trucks, said Chris Turner, director of enforcement data and judicial outreach for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, made up of inspectors of trucks and motor coaches.

“Humans who drive, no matter how much safety technology you give them, can find a way to not use it effectively and to make poor choices while using that technology,” Turner said.

Fatalities in large truck crashes increased by 48% between 2009 and 2019, with those crashes killing 5,005 people in 2019, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Injuries increased by 115% during that same period, rising to 159,000 in 2019.

The number of registered trucks and their vehicle miles traveled also increased. But so did the rate of fatalities in large truck crashes per 100 million vehicle miles traveled, rising to 1.642 in 2018, the most recent year available, from 1.17 in 2009, according to the federal data.

“It’s definitely not going the right direction,” Turner said.

Trucks are usually not the cause of fatal crashes. The critical pre-crash event in 23% of crashes involving large trucks in 2018 was the truck’s movement or loss of control, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Another vehicle, person, animal or object in the truck’s lane accounted for the rest.

Truck occupants also are far less likely to die than occupants of the other vehicle or non-occupants, such as pedestrians. In 2017, 82% of those killed were not in the truck, according to federal data.

The safety alliance generally supports the DRIVE Safe Act, Turner said, but he doubts it will resolve staffing problems. And he would like the feds to launch a long-delayed pilot program to see how 18-to-20-year-old interstate truck drivers perform, and study distracted driving and the effectiveness of collision avoidance systems.

“With crash rates increasing over the last 10 years, one of the things we are lacking is the data to comprehensively address that,” Turner said.

Too little federal safety data exists on younger intrastate truck drivers to come to conclusions about their safety. But federal statistics show younger drivers of all vehicles are significantly more dangerous than older ones.

“The risk of motor vehicle crashes is higher among teens aged 16-19 than among any other age group,” according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “In fact, per mile driven, teen drivers in this age group are nearly three times as likely as drivers aged 20 or older to be in a fatal crash.”

Eight percent, or 4,144 of 51,490, fatal motor vehicle crashes in 2018 involved a driver aged 15 to 20, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

“All of the data points to the fact that these drivers are not safe,” said Sam Loesche, senior legislative and policy representative of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “In the meantime the industry wants to push a proposal that would unleash them nationwide on the roads. We just think that’s a backwards way to approach it.”

He said any decision to lower the age for interstate truck driving should wait until safety data can prove younger drivers are safe. And while Loesche supports the mandated extra safety features on apprentice training trucks, he said it is an acknowledgment they are not as safe as older drivers.

The bill’s inclusion of those advanced safety technologies on training vehicles points to the need for them on all trucks, Chase said. Apprentices trained to rely on advanced technologies during their “scant probationary period” are likely to be particularly dangerous once they leave the training vehicle, she said.

“The teen driver is then at a safety deficit, lacking experience in safely operating trucks without the technology,” Chase said in testimony submitted to a U.S. Senate committee last year.

The DRIVE Safe Act also is opposed by the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and the Truck Safety Coalition, who called the training standards “woefully inadequate” in a joint letter with the Teamsters president and Chase.

“While we would prefer to assume most motor carriers participating in the apprenticeship program would do so with the best of intentions, experience tells us many will unfortunately use the initiative to take advantage of teenagers, whom they view as cheaper labor,” said the letter sent to a House committee.

Not everyone in the trucking industry believes a driver shortage exists.

“There is a driver pay shortage and a driver fair treatment shortage,” said Lewie Pugh, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.

Trucking jobs pay a median annual wage of $47,130, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But Pugh said pay hasn’t kept up with inflation, and the big carriers want to get drivers “as cheap as they can.”

“It’s kind of like a sweat shop deal in my opinion,” Pugh said.

Long-haul trucking is a challenging job that can keep drivers away from home for up to three weeks, and carriers try to find ways for drivers to be home more often, said Bob Costello, chief economist for the ATA.

“If you’ve been in the industry for a year, you should be making $55,000 if you want,” Costello said. “If this was only about pay, this would be easy to solve. It’s much more complicated.”

Pugh points to a 2019 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that questioned the shortage of heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers. The report found that the market for drivers tended to be tight and have high turnover in the long-distance freight hauling segment, but overall it works “as well as any other blue-collar labor market.”

Jobs for heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers will grow by 2%, or 30,600 jobs, between 2019 and 2029, which is slower than average, according to the BLS.

The real issue is high turnover, said Norita Taylor, spokesperson for the owner-operator group. Companies that transport goods regionally and some private carriers that haul their own products do not have high turnover, she said, because they have better working conditions and drivers get home every night or at least on weekends.

Unionized companies, like UPS, also do not have high turnover rates, Loesche said. Teamsters negotiate pay, he said, but also how often drivers get to return home and the use of team drivers so one person can sleep while the other drives.

“Those people are some of the best paid drivers in the industry. And guess what, they stay,” Loesch said. “It takes a certain mentality and person who wants to do that job in the first place. But the people that do it still want to be paid fairly.”

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