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Safety groups question merits of federal driver apprenticeship program

Some truck safety and insurance groups are questioning the merits of the federal under-21 commercial driver apprenticeship program. Trucking industry groups, however, are backing the pilot program in comments submitted to the Federal Register this summer.

The Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program would allow select drivers between 18 and 20 years old to operate in trucking interstate commerce while the government collects safety data on the impacts. Most US states already let drivers younger than 21 obtain commercial driver’s licenses and operate heavy-duty vehicles within their states. But the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) does not allow those same drivers to cross state lines.

American Trucking Associations (ATA) supports the pilot program to get more people to consider trucking careers while bolstering the driver workforce. ATA contends that the truck driver shortage topped 80,000 in 2021.

“The already substantial shortage is expected to increase to 160,000 drivers by 2030 if no changes are made,” Nicholas Geale, ATA VP for workforce labor, wrote in the trade group’s formal comments submitted to the Federal Register. “Longer term, the industry will need to hire roughly 1.1 million new drivers over the next decade to keep pace with growing demand and an aging workforce.”

See also: As fleets seek future drivers, TCA backs federal apprenticeship program

The Shippers Coalition used a similar argument in its formal comments supporting the pilot program. “The nation currently faces widely reported and significant inefficiencies in supply chains and a shortage of commercial truck drivers,” the coalition’s unsigned letter reads. “Safely allowing these below 21 years of age drivers to operate in interstate commerce is expected to increase the supply of commercial drivers. That increase, in turn, holds the potential to inject needed fluidity into supply chains, both in the short and long term, while presenting an enhanced career opportunity in trucking to 18- to 20-year-old men and women.”

‘A lethal combination’

Conversely, the Truck Safety Coalition calls for the US Department of Transportation to terminate the pilot program before it begins. “This program is not in the public interest and challenges all available evidence on record for teen driving safety,” wrote Zach Cahalan, the coalition’s executive director.

Cahalan’s comments, he wrote, also represent the views of Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH), Parents Against Tired Truckers (PATT), “and our volunteers, who are the family and friends of truck crash victims and survivors.”

The coalition cited an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety figure from 1999, based on an Australia finding, that 19- and 20-year-old commercial drivers are six times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than those 21 and older. “Teens and trucks are a lethal combination affirmed by decades of research and data,” Cahalan wrote.

The apprenticeship pilot aimed at drivers younger than 21 requires those young drivers to be in trucks with automated manual transmissions, active braking collision mitigation systems, forward-facing cameras, and a governed speed of 65 mph.

See also: Driver apprenticeships prove effective, but …

ATA backed the safety and technology requirements for teen CDL holders participating in the program, which would initially be limited to 3,000 younger drivers. “The participants in the pilot program will become a highly trained and safety-focused workforce moving our nation forward,” Geale wrote.

TSC also notes that the pilot program only requires safety technology for 280 hours of probationary driving.

The Truck Safety Coalition argues that these limited safety technology requirements are not enough. It calls for also requiring inward-facing cameras. “Research indicates that nearly 40% of teens choose to drive while distracted by a mobile device,” Cahalan wrote. “Utilizing rear-facing cameras provides targeted support and accountability to help young drivers overcome this known behavioral challenge that endangers public safety.”

Not a typical teen drives a truck

ATA argues that groups shouldn’t compare a typical teen driver to those seeking a career in trucking. “It is worth noting that they fail to take into account that the drivers in this program are not off-the-street teenagers but individuals who have successfully obtained a commercial driver’s license before joining the SDAP program,” ATA’s Geale wrote. “Given that 49 states and the District of Columbia already allow licensed 18- to 20-year-olds to drive CMVs in intrastate commerce, there is no rational reason to oppose this program generally since these drivers will have much more training and state-of -the-art equipment.”

The American Property Casualty Insurance Association (APCIA) is concerned about how the FMCSA would collect data on the younger commercial drivers to compare how they perform versus typical younger drivers.

See also: Opinion: Trucking ready and waiting for under-21 apprentices

“Trucking insurance is built on statistics,” wrote Robert Passmore, APCIA’s VP of personal lines. “The number of claims and dollars paid are key (though not sole) factors in determining future insurance costs. Insurers individually determine their underwriting appetites, whether for general charge vs. tank trucks or for fleets employing younger drivers than have been allowed up to now. The statistical results of FMCSA’s younger driver pilot program might factor into individual insurer interest in under-21 drivers and availability to insurers of detailed statistical information on the pilot program’s safety results, including access to a data set of all drivers who have successfully completed the program versus those who have not, will be critical to the program’s success.”

The current proposal requires data on any safety and other incidents involving the apprentice. That gathered information includes crash data, inspection data, citation data, safety event data (those recorded by installed safety and advanced driver assistance systems), video recordings, and exposure data (record of duty status logs, on-duty time, driving time, etc.). Fleets will also be asked to report any additional or remedial training to participating drivers. All this data is to be submitted monthly by participating motor carriers, which would be part of a report on the pilot program.

The public can submit written comments through the Federal Register until Aug. 10.

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