In the US, teens can ride big rigs in a new pilot program

(AP) – The federal government is moving forward with a plan to have teenagers drive large horse-drawn carts from state to state in a testing program. Currently, truckers crossing state lines must be at least 21 years old, but a training program required by Congress to reduce supply chain backlogs would allow 18- to 20-year-old truckers to drive outside their home states.

The pilot program, detailed Thursday in a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulation proposal, would screen the teens and disqualify anyone with violations of driving with a disability or tickets for causing an accident. But safety advocates say the program contradicts data showing younger drivers have more accidents than older ones. They say it’s unwise to blame teenage drivers for trucks that weigh 80,000 pounds and can cause catastrophic damage when they meet lighter vehicles.

The apprentice pilot program was requested by Congress as part of the Infrastructure Act that went into effect on November 15. It requires FMCSA, which is part of the Department of Transportation, to start the program within 60 days.

The American Trucking Associations, a large industry association, support the measure to counteract the driver shortage. The group estimates the country is missing over 80,000 drivers, needed as demand for freight transport hits historic highs.

As part of the training, junior drivers can cross state lines during the 120-hour and 280-hour probation periods as long as an experienced driver sits in the passenger seat. Trucks used in the program must have an Electronic Brake Mitigation System and a forward-facing video camera, and their speed must be limited to 65 miles per hour.

After the probationary period, they can drive independently, but companies must check their performance up to the age of 21. No more than 3,000 trainees can take part in the training at any one time. According to the Transportation Department, the FMCSA must reach carriers with excellent safety records in order to participate in the program.

The program runs for up to three years, and the auto transport agency must submit a report to Congress analyzing the safety record of the teenage drivers and making a recommendation as to whether the younger drivers are as safe as those 21 years of age or older. Congress could expand the program with new legislation.

The test is part of a broader package of measures by the Biden administration to address the truck shortage and improve working conditions for truck drivers. In a statement, Nick Geale, vice president of occupational safety at the trucking associations, noted that 49 states and Washington, DC already allow drivers under the age of 21 to drive articulated lorries, but they are not allowed to pick up cargo just across a state line.

“This program creates a rigorous safety training program that requires an additional 400 hours of advanced safety training where participants are evaluated against specific performance benchmarks,” Geale said. The program will ensure the industry has enough drivers to meet growing freight demand, he said.

But Peter Kurdock, general counsel for Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety, said federal data shows younger drivers have far higher accident rates than older ones. “This comes as no surprise to any American who drives a vehicle,” he said.

Putting them behind the wheel of trucks that can weigh up to 40 tons when loaded increases the likelihood of accidents with mass casualties, he said. Kurdock said the trucking industry had wanted younger drivers for years and was using supply chain issues to get them included in the Infrastructure Act. He worries the industry will use skewed data from the program to target teenage truckers nationwide.

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