Chances are the majority of items you buy, or the parts to make them, were at one time on a truck. The importance of trucking to the economy is undeniable, as is a lingering problem facing the industry: a driver shortage that is only getting worse.
The American Trucking Association estimates that there is a truck driver shortage of 80,000 drivers, a historic high. And the shortage is estimated to surpass 160,000 by 2030. The fleet of current drivers is growing older. There are indications that, increasingly, current and eligible drivers are unwilling to do the job due to factors such as long and uneven hours, the grueling nature of driving in traffic, detention at shippers and receivers, and increasing regulatory demands.
Statistics show that the average age of a truck driver is 48. About 83% of drivers are men. Turnover is high and retention is low; about 40% of drivers stay on the job for less than one year and only 27% remain drivers for two years.
Motor carriers—in cooperation with trucking organizations, state and federal authorities, shippers, receivers, and other stakeholders—are attempting to address the problems with better pay and benefits, creative and flexible scheduling, use of team drivers, and increased dedicated routes. But it is clear that more needs to be done to address the driver shortage and attendant problems.
Looking to Younger Drivers
In response, part of Congress’ Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act—signed into law by President Joe Biden in November 2021—mandated that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Ad=ministration (FMCSA) establish an apprenticeship program for qualified 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old drivers, which would allow these drivers to operate commercial motor vehicles for interstate travel as long as certain conditions are met.
On Jan. 14, 2022, the FMCSA, in accordance with Congress’ mandate, established the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program. For participating motor carriers and drivers, the normal requirement under Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulation (FMCSR) 391.11(b)(1), restricting drivers under 21 years of age from interstate travel, will be waived, allowing qualified 18-20-year-old apprentice drivers that meet the program requirements to operate commercial motor vehicles in interstate travel.
In order to be part of the program, qualified motor carriers must apply on the FMCSA website, and the program will be limited to 3,000 drivers. It should be noted that the FMCSA currently does not restrict younger drivers from operating in intrastate commerce, though state laws vary in this regard.
In addition to having proper operating authority and minimum levels of insurance, the requirements for a motor carrier to be a part of the program include: not being classified as a moderate or high risk motor carrier by the FMCSA; a satisfactory safety rating from the FMCSA; no open enforcement actions; and below national average crash and driver/vehicle Operations Out-of-Service rates.
The requirements to be an apprentice driver include not having the following in a two-year period preceding the driver’s date of hire: more than one license; license suspended/revoked; any conviction of a traffic violation (other than parking) in relation to a traffic crash; and any conviction of other enumerated violations related to drugs/alcohol or negligent/reckless driving.
Before the apprentice driver is allowed to operate a commercial motor vehicle alone, the program requires that the apprentice driver go through two probationary periods with the motor carrier: an initial 120-hour period of on-duty time (80 hours driving a commercial motor vehicle) and an additional 280-hour period of on-duty time (160 hours driving a commercial motor vehicle). During both of these probationary periods, the apprentice driver must be accompanied at all times by an experienced driver (as defined under the program), and the commercial motor vehicle being operated by the apprentice driver must have certain technologies installed, such as forward facing video cameras and a governed speed of 65 MPH. Additionally, the motor carrier is responsible during these probationary periods for ensuring the apprentice driver is competent in the categories enumerated under the program, including but not limited to speed and space management, safety awareness, hours of service compliance, backing and maneuvering in close quarters, and pre-trip inspections.
The program will last three years, and the FMCSA will report its findings to Congress. Participating motor carriers will have reporting requirements, including monthly reporting to the FMCSA on the apprentice driver’s activity. The FMCSA has not yet announced the application process for the program, however, interested motor carriers should not wait to begin reviewing and, if need be, implementing the necessary policies and procedures to participate and comply with the program.
Some in the industry are concerned about the idea of putting 18-20-year-olds in trucks that a significant segment of the population already perceives as larger, heavier, more difficult to drive, and, therefore, less safe than passenger vehicles. It is crucial that any pilot program or eventual permanent program be carefully designed to address these concerns.
Of course, there is risk to allowing younger drivers to operate commercial motor vehicles in interstate commerce. Surely, there will be claims and litigation implications—plaintiffs’ lawyers will argue that younger drivers are less safe. Negligent hiring, retention, and training claims will invariably be presented. Time will tell how these claims will be addressed by the defense. But it is evident that claims and lawsuits involving young drivers will need careful attention regarding training, monitoring of behavior, and witness preparation.
Meanwhile, the FMCSA, responding to a mandate from Congress, will launch this intriguing pilot program to address a serious issue facing the trucking industry and indeed the entire country. It will be interesting to see what develops.