Under-21 driver proposals get pushback at U.S. Senate hearing

Republican lawmakers would like to see the next highway bill reauthorization include a provision allowing under-21 truck drivers to haul freight across state lines, but safety advocates and small-business truckers are urging Congress to resist that effort.

The Drive Safe Act, which was strongly opposed by safety groups and independent owner-operators when it was initially proposed in 2018, was reintroduced in separate bills in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate last year with more bipartisan support. At the same time, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is considering an under-21 pilot project for nonmilitary drivers. The proposal received over 1,100 comments.

At a Senate hearing on truck safety Tuesday, Todd Young, R-Ind., an original sponsor of the bill, encouraged his colleagues to support the legislation as the Senate and House begin negotiating a long-term highway funding reauthorization. But Dawn King, president of the Truck Safety Coalition, testified at the hearing that research examining intrastate (as opposed to interstate) commercial truck drivers show those under the age of 19 are four times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes, and those between 19 and 20 six times more likely.

“We also believe that these young people would be the new hires, and they’re not likely to get the cushy job where they get to drive a 10-mile route near their home so they can be with their family every night,” King said. “We’re concerned that the younger drivers will end up on the longer routes, which will take them into states they’re not familiar with.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) has also opposed loosening restrictions on under-21 drivers on safety grounds as well. On Tuesday, it also questioned whether the looser standards can translate from theory to practice.

“Who is going to hire them? Who is going to insure them?” asked OOIDA Vice President Lewie Pugh at the hearing, pointing out his own experience after leaving the military when he was 21.

“I only found two motor carriers at the time that would give me a job, and it wasn’t a very good job. At 22, I bought my own truck but struggled finding carriers that would lease to me because of my age and lack of experience. I was 25 years old before the door was pretty much open for me to drive for anybody.”

American Trucking Associations (ATA) President and CEO Chris Spear, a strong proponent of the legislation as a means of increasing the pool of eligible drivers, said that one- to three-year difference will not affect safety, particularly given that the bill includes a significant training component.

“This is a step towards safety. What I want to know is, for everybody who’s opposing this bill, where were they [in opposing] the 49 states” that allow drivers under 21 to drive long distances, he asked. “You can drive 850 miles in California, but you can’t go 10 miles from Providence, Rhode Island, to Rehoboth, Massachusetts. That’s got to be the dumbest policy I’ve ever seen. You remedy it with training and technology. That’s exactly what [the legislation] does. That’s exactly what [FMCSA] is doing.”

Spear used the opportunity to urge Congress to put more pressure on the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to adopt hair follicle testing for use in random drug tests for drivers, and on FMCSA to establish a national employer notification system to give trucking companies more timely alerts on suspended driver licenses and moving violation convictions.

He also highlighted the FMCSA’s technical problems in rolling out the Drug & Alcohol Clearinghouse, urging Congress to ensure the problems don’t reoccur. “Furthermore, FMCSA should address what steps are being taken to ensure a high level of compliance with the clearinghouse requirements from both a motor carrier and laboratory reporting standpoint,” Spear said in his testimony.