18-year-old truckers? Why not 16-year-olds?

October 2019

John Bendel

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Will Congress vote to allow kids just out of high school to drive 40-ton trucks in interstate commerce?

Spurred on by the ATA, lawmakers are rushing to co-sponsor the ironically titled DRIVE Safe Act to do just that. If Congress says yes, they will regret it. We all will.

We’ve been here before.

Bowing to public pressure in the late stages of the Vietnam War, Congress passed the 26th Amendment to the Constitution, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. The amendment was ratified by the states in 1971. With the war still raging, 30 sympathetic states took the idea a step further. They lowered their drinking age as well. It was a mistake.

By the time the Vietnam War ended in 1975, casualties among young drivers and drinkers at home were soaring. According to the National Institutes of Health, alcohol-related traffic deaths among 16- to 20-year-olds reached 5,244 in 1982. In response, Congress enacted a national minimum drinking age of 21 in 1984. Since then, among persons under 21, drunk driving fatalities have decreased 80%.

But this isn’t about drinking. It’s about maturity. Given legal access to alcohol, 18-year-olds as a group did not conduct themselves responsibly.

We don’t need all the research and documentation establishing the relative immaturity of 18-year-olds, though there is plenty. We understand it implicitly. In a recent interview, for example, baseball great Keith Hernandez spoke about his days in the minor leagues. “You’re a hotheaded, 18-year-old kid, and you don’t know how to handle it,” he said. “You throw helmets. You throw bats. You kick dirt.”

The ATA and big carriers support the legislation to draw kids into the pool of potential drivers (another conversation altogether). They ask why 18-year-olds who drive trucks legally in many large states should be constrained by state borders?

Even in the biggest states, the length of any trip is limited. But in interstate truckload we’re talking about kids pin-balling across the country, picking up and delivering freight and away from home for up to three weeks at a time. Temptations and perils abound. It’s a long time for any worker to be away from home, never mind kids as young as 18.

It’s inevitable that, if the DRIVE-Safe Act is approved, one of these under-21 drivers is going to be involved in a bad crash. And the fact that he or she is “underage” is going to make it big news. And the ATA and the other big carriers are not going to like that.

The ATA points to the military. If enlistees ages 18-21 can drive big trucks in the service, why can’t they do it in civilian life?

The answer is obvious: supervision. In the military, the kids are tightly supervised. Civilian drivers, despite spying electronics, are on their own.

Besides, the 18-year-old minimum age for military service has nothing to do with maturity. The draft age in the U.S. was 21 until 1942, our first full year in World War II. By then our long-term strategy involved, among other things, what we now know as D-Day and the massive fight for Western Europe that followed. We needed more troops than the 21-year-old limit could provide – hence the 18-year-old threshold.

That limit could drop further. According to the Washington Times in July, sagging enlistments have spurred “debate over whether the military should consider lowering the minimum enlistment age from 17 (with parental consent) to 16. More than a dozen countries, including the United Kingdom, already have adopted the policy.”

Sixteen-year-old semi drivers anyone? LL

 

John Bendel

John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon, and longtime truck writer, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer for New York Times. There’s more, but in short, his insight and matchless style of writing makes “Gizmos and Gears” a runaway reader favorite.