Although arguably more essential than ever, the truck driving industry is in the midst of a slow and steady decline, as drivers continue to retire faster than new drivers enter the field. However, a new federal program attempts to reverse this trend by encouraging young people to consider a career on the open road.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration

Last year, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration launched a pilot program for drivers between the ages of 18 and 21. The program teaches young drivers safe driving techniques as well as general information about the industry. Additionally, the program provides valuable data about young truck drivers so that the FMCSA can examine the safety, practicality, and economic benefits.

The 200 participants in the program were recruited from two groups. One group consists of drivers who have operated commercial motor vehicles for at least one year and 25,000 miles. The other group is hired directly by trucking companies. All applicants were required to have no license suspensions, revocations, or disqualifications for the past two years.

During the program, drivers are carefully monitored. They only operate trucks with collision-mitigation systems, speed limiters, and front-facing cameras. Plus, all participants are forbidden from hauling hazardous materials or passengers.

Do Younger Drivers Pose Potential Problems?

Hiring younger drivers is a controversial idea within the trucking industry.

Proponents cite the ever-dwindling workforce, an issue first identified in the 1980s. Encouraging young people to consider trucking as a career is the most obvious way to rejuvenate the industry. However, hiring young drivers is consistently hampered by insurance regulations.

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Throughout the 1980s, insurance companies refused to cover drivers under the age of 25. Trucking companies argued these restrictions severely limited their ability to attract new drivers, because most potential candidates had already decided on different lines of work by that age. Eventually, insurance companies changed their policies, but 21 remains the minimum age for holding a commercial driver’s license.

While the FMCSA implements rigorous safety standards for its apprentice drivers, opponents argue these younger drivers still pose increased risks, as their general immaturity can lead to accidents. Additionally, they believe younger drivers are more likely to be exploited by poor working conditions and low wages.

Instead of building a career, young drivers might leave for better opportunities in other industries. Unless the industry commits to higher wages and improved benefits, opponents argue apprenticeship programs might simply lead to increased turnover and the constant presence of inexperienced drivers on the road.

The Future of Truck Driving

In 2015, Congress passed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act. This bill allowed 18-to-20-year-old military veterans to drive commercial vehicles between states, but only if they had the military equivalent of a commercial driver’s license. As part of the FAST Act, Congress allowed FMCSA to lower the age requirement of commercial truck drivers, but only for former military members.

“Many opponents of last year’s pilot program see it as an attempt to sidestep the military service requirement established in the FAST Act,” said Bennett Schiller of Schiller & Hamilton Law Firm. “While the new program does accept applicants without military truck driving experience, it remains to be seen if that increases the risks on the road.”

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Everyone involved agrees that the trucking industry must find a way to recruit new drivers, but precisely who those new drivers should be is a continued subject for debate.