The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on everyone, but the trucking industry has felt it especially. One of the top things we hear constantly is about the shortage of qualified truck drivers – you might be seeing this reflected on the shelves of your grocery store. Last October, the head of the American Trucking Association said that the industry needed approximately 80,000 more drivers. Because of this, the U.S. government is developing an apprenticeship program for young truck drivers. Under current federal regulations, only those at least 21 years of age are allowed to drive semi-trucks across state lines. The new Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program will allow people at least 18 years old, and who have a state-issued commercial driver’s license with a clean record, to take the wheel of interstate trucks under the direct supervision of an experienced driver.
The need for drivers is clearly there, but there are people objecting to the program, concerned about potentially putting dangerous and inexperienced drivers behind the wheel of some of the largest and heaviest vehicles on the road. As of right now, 49 states, as well as the District of Columbia, give commercial drivers’ licenses to individuals under the age of 21. These younger drivers are able to drive through large states, such as California and Texas, they are just unable to cross state lines. This new program will take some of those drivers and provide them with the proper training to allow them to cross state lines in their rigs.
The program was proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in September of 2020, but it wasn’t implemented at that time. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, signed into law this past November, required the creation of the program. The program will soon become operational, according to a notice in the Federal Register.
The Truck Safety Coalition has publicly objected to the program since it was first proposed, citing hazards posed by teen drivers. Cathy Chase, President of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, has also objected to the program.
“It makes no sense to put one of the most dangerous driving populations behind the wheel of 80,000-pound rigs,” she stated.
Apprentice drivers could potentially complete the program well before reaching their 21st birthday, Chase said, and could get behind the wheel of a semi-truck without any of the safety equipment required by the program. There are other ways to deal with driver shortages, she said, such as making the job more appealing by increasing pay and reducing driving hours.