By TED CARTER
Nothing brings despair to a highway freight transportation company in a booming economy than trucks idled by a lack of drivers.
But is lowering the age for interstate truck driver commercial licenses to 18 the answer to a nationwide driver deficit of about 40,000 drivers today and projected to grow to 125,000 to 170,000 between 2022 and 2025?
U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter and other House members who back Hunter’s DRIVE-Safe Act to lower the limit to 18 think so.
Drivers and the organizations that hire them say better pay and benefits and improved working conditions are the answer. Lowering the minimum interstate driving age from 21 to 18 is an invitation to more highway carnage, the organizations have said in media reports.
Teamsters Local 891 president Willie Smith in Jackson and the transportation union’s national headquarters in Washington D.C. did not respond to repeated requests for comment on lowering the driver eligibility age.
Hal Miller, president of the Mississippi Trucking Association, says the Teamsters are realizing something must be done to fill the ranks of retiring drivers and others who are leaving the profession for other work. “The majority of the workforce is 50-plus,” he said, with an average age of 53.
Miller worries that even with the lowered age it will be difficult to get insurance coverage for younger drivers taking 18-wheelers across state lines. In Mississippi, 18-year-olds can drive the big rigs but they can’t drive them out of state. Just getting coverage for these drivers can be impossible, Miller said.
“Insurers are reluctant to insure some carriers,” he said. “They impose some age limits even on intrastate driving.”
KLLM Transport Services, a 4,000-truck fleet based in Richland, has addressed the driver shortage with a training school created through a partnership with Hinds Community College. But students must be at least 21, says Jim Richards, KLLM president and CEO.
“I think that is probably a pretty good number from a maturity standpoint,” he said.
He said he would support letting younger drivers into the ranks provided the process for each driver candidate is gradual based on knowledge and learned skills. “I would be in favor of some type of program,” Richards said. “Maybe for a period of time to slowly ease them in with different levels of licensing.”
KLLM and Hinds Community started the training program in 2013. It’s one of three KLLM has created with colleges, the others being in Dallas with Cedar Valley College and in Chicago with Prairie State College.
“We only train for ourselves,” Richards said, explaining students get the training for free in exchange for working for KLLM for one year.
The Jackson program graduates about 1,300 students a year, a number Richards says helps KLLM “feed the monster,” a description he gives for the always-present driver shortfall.
KLLM provides the instructors, 19 at present, for the Jackson training. It also provides a classroom instructor.
The first week, students take the U.S. Department of Transportation test for a commercial Class A Permit. “Then we train them on the backing range for a week,” Richards says.
Next is around-town driving with a 53-foot trailer for a week. The comes six weeks of highway driving.
The federal DOT is looking at starting an interstate driving pilot program for 18-to-20 year-olds. Only younger truckers with military training and experience operating commercial vehicles will be eligible at first, The Associated Press reported.
Meanwhile, Hal Miller at the Trucking Association said today’s inexperienced truckers have far more technical safety help than those of two decades ago.
“It’s not like the conversation you’d have 15 years ago,” he says.
Collision avoidance devices, side radar devices, on-board cameras and recordings of the operator’s driving habits are now part of the mix.
“The truck will record a hard brake,” he said, and even record near-collisions.
In fact, he said, today’s truck will brake on its own if a driver gets too close to another vehicle.
The safety technology is designed to save lives but can also save an entire company, Miller noted. “One really bad accident can take out a really reputable organization.”
Miller said he expects the shortfall to only get worse. Young adults leaving high school are entering the building trades and other occupations instead of waiting until reaching 21 to become long-haul truck drivers, Miller said, and added:
“If we could only catch them coming out of school…”
In the meantime, it behooves shippers to be more accommodating to truck drivers. “The shippers are realizing they need to take care of them when they come in to pick up the freight,” he said.
Miller said he thinks trucking companies will become more focused on keeping drivers than keeping customers. “They want to create a friendly environment when the trucker is there,” he said.
He said he is encouraged that Congress seems more willing to push for some sort of apprenticeship for under-21 drivers. This, Miller said, would provide a “defined process for them to be trained and vetted before they can be over-the-road interstate truck drivers.”
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