POLITICS

Congress Wants Teenagers To Drive Big Rigs

A provision in a new bill would let younger truckers drive interstate.

WASHINGTON -- Driving big rigs is one of the most dangerous, grueling occupations in America. And Congress apparently thinks it's just the job for the nation's underemployed teenagers.

In fact, Senate lawmakers think it's such a good idea, they slipped a provision into the must-pass highway bill funding road and transit construction that would start pilot projects to allow people 18 and up to drive tractor trailers in interstate commerce.

The scenario is baffling to safety advocates and senators who think it is a bad idea to put the most crash-prone segment of the population behind the wheels of big rigs on the nation’s interstates.

“This bill puts 18-year-olds behind the wheels of 80,000-pound trucks speeding at 75 miles an hour driving across state lines,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said earlier this week on a conference call ahead of the bill’s release, adding that it “needs to be corrected.”

After the measure was unveiled, the assessment of opponents didn’t much change. “This bill continues to be a safety disaster. It’s a catastrophe for safety progress,” Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) told reporters Wednesday.

The provision to allow young drivers would last six years, and create up to three different “compacts” around the nation where up to four neighboring states would let teens drive big rigs across their borders but no more than 100 miles from their home state.

Nearly all states allow younger drivers to get commercial licenses, but they are banned from interstate commerce.

The measure appears to have been written for the trucking industry, which is facing chronic shortages of qualified drivers, and has been looking for creative ways to attract new workers, including women, into the older, male-dominated field. 

But the idea of turning to teens makes little sense to safety advocates and outside observers.

According to a breakdown of the full bill by Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which opposes numerous provisions in the bill, the teen trucker section represents a “cynical attempt to increase the availability of commercial drivers by allowing inexperienced teens to drive trucks.”

Similarly, researchers who have looked extensively at teen drivers think increasing their use for heavy hauling spells danger.

“There’s a lot of evidence that this is a bad idea from a safety perspective, and I really don’t know of any evidence that it’s a good idea,” said Anne McCartt, the senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

She and a spokeswoman for the National Safety Council pointed to numerous studies from the United States and around the world showing that accident rates -- from fender benders to fatal wrecks -- were much higher for truck drivers under the age of 21, regardless of training. One study from Michigan found the crash rate higher by a factor of six.

The provision was inserted in the 1,000-plus-page bill by the Senate Commerce Committee, chaired by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.). Thune spokesman Frederick Hill said in a statement that it made sense to try out the idea of letting teens drive rigs across state lines because they already drive long distances within their states.

“Under current federal law, a 20-year-old holder of a commercial driver’s license in New York City can drive a truck to Buffalo, but not across the Hudson to Newark,” Hill said. “Similarly, a driver in Philadelphia can drive to Pittsburgh but not down the road to Wilmington or across a bridge to Camden. This legislation sets up a pilot program (with restrictions that include a prohibition on operating more than 100 miles from the border of the licensing state) so that states could consider limited changes to current restrictions on younger commercial drivers that would also have to secure the approval of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation before they could go into effect.”

Hill also noted that in hopes of addressing some of the complaints raised, the proposal in the current bill was altered from an expanded earlier version that passed the committee on July 15. The original version allowed six compacts, an unlimited number of states and had no distance limitations.

Still, McCartt noted that when similar pilot programs where proposed before by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, they were dropped, and research in the 15 years since has only reinforced that there are dangers posed by young drivers, even those who go through more robust, graduated licensing programs.

“Just looking at the overwhelming evidence, based on all drivers under 21, not just truck drivers, they have much higher crash rates,” McCartt said.

Add to that the tough life of a trucker.

“I think it’s very hard for most of us to comprehend what an arduous schedule and lifestyle long-distance truck drivers have,” she said. “To think of an 18-year-old, or even a 19- or a 20-year-old, starting off in that situation, probably for their first job, it’s really difficult to comprehend. And again, where is the evidence that these drivers will be safe? I don’t know of any.”

There’s a long road to go before the measure could become law. Senators on both sides of the aisle have raised numerous objections to the full highway bill, and barely voted Wednesday to begin debate on it.

Michael McAuliff covers Congress and politics for The Huffington Post. Talk to him on Facebook.