President Joe Biden scored a political victory on Nov. 15 when he signed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law, but road safety advocates in Texas and around the country are concerned about a provision in the landmark bill that would allow drivers as young as 18 to drive semi-tractor trailers between states. Supporters of the pilot program say action is needed to address a worrying truck driver shortage and get the nation’s supply chain moving again. Its opponents say allowing teenagers to operate vehicles that can weigh as much as 40 tons will lead to more accidents and highway fatalities.
Groups like Parents Against Tired Truckers are opposed to reducing the minimum age for interstate truck drivers from 21 to 18 because motor vehicle accident data gathered by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reveals that teenagers are four times more likely to crash than older motorists. In a letter sent to President Biden in early November, groups including the American Trucking Associations, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the Agricultural Retailers Association said the change was needed and urged the administration to bring federal regulations into line with state rules. Every state other than New York allows individuals to obtain commercial driver’s licenses at the age of 18.
Truck driver shortage
These groups also point out that something must be done to deal with a looming truck driver shortage. In 2020 alone, the number of drivers employed by the logistics sector in the United States fell from 3.5 million to 3.36 million, and many experts expect this trend to continue. Operating a tractor-trailer is a grueling and highly regulated job that does not pay particularly well, so attracting new drivers is difficult for trucking companies. The infrastructure bill makes things easier for them by allowing drivers as young as 18 to fill these jobs as long as they have at least 400 hours of experience.
Balancing economic and safety concerns
The trucking industry’s safety regulations were implemented to protect all road users, and lawmakers should think very carefully before softening them even during times of crisis. If the safety groups that oppose this change are correct, and accident statistics suggest that they are, teens behind the wheels of large commercial vehicles will lead to more highway injuries and deaths. That is a high price to pay to keep the supply chain moving and store shelves full.