A new plan that is part of highway legislation currently before the Senate could allow drivers as young as 18 years old to drive 40-ton trucks between states. This plan is supported by the U.S. trucking industry but strongly opposed by highway safety advocates.
The legislation comes at a time of driver shortages in the trucking industry. According to a forecast by FTR, an industry research firm, there could be more than 250,000 unfilled trucker jobs by 2017. In addition to easing driver shortages, the legislation would also reduce contract costs. Trucking companies have increased contract rates due to the increased costs of attracting and retaining drivers. With more willing drivers, these companies will be able to reduce those costs.
While the legislation may help with industry shortages and contract costs, it carries a very high price in terms of safety. Currently, 48 states allow 18 year olds to drive big trucks but federal law prohibits them from operating across state borders. In these states that allow younger drivers, those drivers are four-to six-times as likely as 21 year old drivers to be involved in fatal crashes.
The legislation attempts to curb these safety risks by giving states the option to place restrictions on the younger drivers. One of the restrictions could be a graduated licensing system, which has been successful for teens driving passenger cars. However, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said that it had no basis for believing that graduated licensing would reduce the danger posed by teen truckers.