In-Depth: New program allows teens to drive semi trucks

Apprentice positions open to 18-20-year old drivers
Posted at 6:10 AM, Jan 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-28 13:10:34-05

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - A new federal program would allow commercial drives under the age of 21 to haul cargo across state lines.

The "Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program" is part of Congress's most recent jobs and infrastructure bill from 2021. It creates 3,000 apprentice positions for drivers age 18-20.

Currently, 49 states and the District of Columbia allow drivers in that age group to operate a commercial truck. But they don't allow them to cross state lines. This program changes that.

"We're excited about this program," says Nick Geale, the VP of Workforce Policy at the American Truckers Association. "We appreciate the administration for launching it. And we're looking to partner with anybody who wants to participate and potentially launch a great career for themselves in this industry."

Geale says the program will help the industry deal with a driver shortage. The ATA estimates a need for an additional 80,000 drivers to get the U.S. supply chain back to full strength.

In addition to having a Commercial Driver's License, young adults who want to become apprentices have to undergo rigorous safety training. The program requires 400 hours of driving with an older driver as a passenger. It also requires the trucks to be equipped with top-of-the-line safety technology. And any driver who violates the program's rules or any number of road safety violations will lose their position immediately.

"The goal here is so that the next generation of interstate drivers are some of the safest in the history of this country," says Geale.

But road safety advocates say the program will have the exact opposite effect.

"It's a recipe for disaster," says Cathy Chase, the President of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "You're taking one of the most dangerous driving populations, that is teenagers, and you're asking them to join one of the most dangerous occupations in the United States. That's truck driving."

Chase's group says more than 5,000 people are killed on the roads in crashes involving semi-trucks each year. She thinks putting more young drivers on the road will cause that number to rise.

"It's not a solution to the current supply chain issues. It's a band-aid. It's a very small band-aid on a very deep wound," says Chase. "You can always restock grocery store shelves. You can never replace an empty seat at the kitchen table."

In San Diego, Phil Harris from United Truck Driving School in Mission Valley says his classes are full through April. He thinks the apprentice program is a good idea, as long as it gets the right drivers involved.

"If an 18-year-old does get hired by a company, and if they are safe enough to drive here in California, one of the most dangerous states in the United States, why can't they drive across the state lines into the desert where there's nothing," he says.

But Harris says a big part of the program will rely on companies willing to take on the added cost of training and insurance. If they do, he thinks they can get a good crop of drivers at a young age, who can have long careers in the industry.

"If this is something you want to do, if this is a passion, it's great to get started out early," Harris says.

Geale believes that benefit of the program will help with driver retention issues. Stats from the ATA show the average age of a driver entering the career is between 35 and 37-years old. The average driving age is 49 years old. Bringing in drivers as young as 18 ensures a steady stream of well-trained employees.

"This would literally raise the bar much higher than is required across the country for anyone 18 to 20 years old in order to allow them to drive interstate," he says.

Still, Chase says it's a bad idea.

"We should not be pulling teenagers from high school hallways and putting them onto high-speed highways," she says.

The program has not started yet. Right now, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is looking for trucking companies that have good safety records to participate. The FMCSA will monitor the program for three years and determine if it should stay in place.