Commercial truck drivers seem to be getting younger and younger, and there’s a reason for this. There’s been a nationwide truck driver shortage for years, and the pandemic only made the problem worse. Approximately 72 percent of goods transported in the United States are moved by trucks. November 2021, the DRIVE-Safe Act was signed into law as part of the federal infrastructure bill. This act allows drivers as young as 18 to pilot large commercial trucks over state lines. Why did this happen, and what dangers could it present to these drivers and others who share the roads with them?
What is the DRIVE-Safe Act?
Most states currently allow individuals who are 18 years of age and up to drive large commercial trucks, but they are not permitted to drive over state lines until they turn 21. The trucking industry has been up in arms, arguing that they needed the age lowered to increase the numbers of available and qualified drivers. The DRIVE-Safe Act is a two-year pilot program, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) estimates that there will be about 40,000 young drivers participating. These young drivers will be able to drive the trucks, but can’t drive with passengers other than their instructors; transporting hazardous materials and driving special configuration vehicles is also prohibited.
DRIVE-Safe was proposed in 2020, but wasn’t signed into law until last November. According to the guidelines, employers will be able to establish apprenticeships for certain drivers ages 18 through 21. The program is limited to 3,000 apprentices at a time, and other standards must be met by the FMCSA and the young drivers.
According to the DRIVE-Safe stipulations, the apprentices have to train with experienced truck drivers who are at least 26 years old and sitting next to them in the passenger seats. The older driver must have five or more years of driving experience (on interstate highways) under their belt, and the younger one needs to have 80 or more hours of commercial truck driving experience. The rig used for training must be properly equipped with modern safety technology, like an active braking mitigation system and speed limiters set to 65 miles per hour.
There’s also a nationwide shortage of school bus drivers, and state legislators have been trying to recruit more of these individuals as well. One plan suggests allowing qualified third parties to offer road test for commercial driver licenses (CDL). This could create more testing sites, but might open up a whole other can of worms for legislators, bus drivers, school children and their families.
Are Young Truck Drivers More Likely to Crash?
A National Surface Transportation Safety Center for Excellence study compared age and experience and how they related to crash risks for truck drivers; they found that actual experience was a better predictor of getting into an accident that the drivers’ ages. This report claimed that younger truck drivers with additional truck driving experience had a smaller accident risk than older ones with less experience. Age was still a factor, but a lack of experience increased the risk across all of the age groups studied.
There’s no arguing that drivers with less experience end up in more crashes: even more mature truck drivers with limited experience behind the wheel can be just as dangerous as young truck drivers. This is especially true with commercial trucks, because it takes much longer to learn how to drive them.
What Else Does the Research Show?
A separate study from The American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) focuses on something else: the Younger Driver Assessment Tool, designed to find the safest 18- to 20-year-old drivers in test study groups. Their early research (Phase I Beta Test) showed that unsafe driving (in non-commercial settings) can be predicted when certain measurable personality traits are identified, including sensation-seeking, frustration, aggression, and impulsivity.
Other factors that might make drivers exhibit unsafe driving practices include poor health symptoms, such as a lack of sleep, increased fatigue, high Body Mass Index, and attention deficit disorder. Lifestyle characteristics included low executive function, low cognitive abilities, and driver inexperience. As of now, these have only been analyzed as safety predictors in non-commercial drivers.
The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute also published a study on the topic of how age and inexperience contribute to commercial truck driving accidents. This one found that regardless of their ages, less experienced truck drivers were like to get into accidents. These researchers emphasized the importance of using onboard technology to reduce the incidences of reckless truck driver behaviors (dash cameras, for example) plus the need for more training and mentoring programs. They also advocate for pairing experienced truckers with rookie truck drivers.
What Else Causes Commercial Truck Accidents?
Besides young ages and inexperience, there are many other reasons why commercial truckers get into serious crashes. Currently, the Department of Transportation limits truck drivers to 11-hour workdays and 70 hours per week, and they must also have a minimum 30-minute break in the first eight hours of a shift. There was a proposal to relax these federal rest requirements, which has been challenged, especially because trucking companies and suppliers want to ease the supply chain backlogs. These long days and hours can lead to driver fatigue, poor sleeping patterns, health problems, drug and alcohol abuse, poor decision making, and a decreased ability to make appropriate driving maneuvers.
This kind of grueling work schedule is not exclusive to the trucking industry, but truck driving is known to be one of the most difficult jobs out there. These drivers can average around 125,000 a year and spend 300 or more days a year driving, yet the average pay for commercial truck drivers was $47,130 a year in 2020 and $48,310 in 2021. It’s hardly surprising that the trucking industry has been steadily losing drivers; the pandemic caused even more to leave, as many refused to get vaccinated, retired, or simply decided to quit.
Should Teenagers Drive Tractor Trailers?
Safety advocates are up in arms about the push to allow 18-year-olds to pilot tractor trailers across state lines. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety claims that teenage drivers are four times more likely to get in accidents than drivers who are 20 years and older, per mile driven. It has been said that lowering the commercial truck drive age limit could place “inexperienced, risk-prone teenagers” in the drivers’ seats of 80,000-pound trucks riding down our nation’s interstate highways.
Besides all the other issues they face (long hours, low pay) truck drivers of all ages are faced with significant pressure to load and unload their rigs, complete their routes on time, and drive in heavy traffic and poor weather conditions. Younger drivers might not have the fortitude or maturity to deal with this kind of job-related stress, and this can impact their ability to drive safely. Besides that, they need to be able to react quickly and appropriately in case of an emergency like brake failure, a tire blowout, or when a skid occurs. These skills are learned through hands-on experience, and they can take many years to master.
The Red Bank Truck Accident Lawyers at Ellis Advocate for Safe Truck Driving and Represent Injured Parties
If you or someone close to you has been injured in a serious commercial truck accident, reach out to the caring, knowledgeable Red Bank truck accident lawyers from Ellis Law. Call our Freehold, New Jersey offices at 732-308-0200 or complete our online form today. We serve clients throughout Freehold, East Brunswick, Toms River, Middletown, Jersey City, Neptune, Hudson County, Union County, Essex County, and Ocean County, as well as Brooklyn and New York, New York.