Assessing the kids behind the wheel

August 16, 2021

John Bendel


Just in time for 18-year-old interstate truck drivers, here comes the Younger Driver Assessment Tool.

The American Transportation Research Institute, an arm of the American Trucking Associations, just finished what it’s calling the Phase 1 Beta Test of its Younger Driver Assessment Tool. In a news release, ATRI said a battery of tests shows promise for differentiating “safer drivers from less safe drivers.” In other words, separating those 18-year-olds hopefully safe enough to drive a truck in interstate commerce from those who can’t be trusted with a skateboard.

According to ATRI, some tests were completed using laptop computers while others were pencil on paper. All purport to measure personal attributes that can indicate how someone will behave as a driver. At least that’s what ATRI hopes they can show.

ATRI gave the test to 75 drivers from 20 to 60 years old. The idea was to compare test results with drivers’ safety records to see which attributes indicate a safe driver and which do not. With that knowledge, a carrier could presumably test 18-year-olds and weed out those who might be prone to such behaviors as tailgating or knife-fighting in truck stop parking lots.

Some of the tests are pretty straightforward. They determine if you’re clinically depressed, an alcoholic, or prone to sleep apnea. Some tests measure your intelligence and dexterity. For example, the Trail-Making Test requires participants to draw lines to connect scattered numbers in a sequence (1-2-3-4…26, etc.). According to ATRI’s report, a poor score indicates “deficient levels of executive function and cognitive flexibility.”

This test, it would appear, will weed out those who cannot think and drive at the same time.

The Trail-Making Test is simple. You pretty much pass it or you don’t. That’s not the case with all the tests. Some are a bit fuzzy, to say the least. Take the Urgency, Premeditation, Perseverance, Sensation Seeking, and Positive Urgency Impulsivity Behavioral Scale in which you rate yourself on your own personal traits. Another test, the Sensation-Seeking Scale, is pretty self-explanatory; how much do you want – or not want – to try bungee jumping, for example.

My favorite is the Big Five Inventory, which is supposed to tell if you’re extroverted, neurotic, agreeable and/or conscientious. Big Five asks you to rate yourself 1 through 5 with an assortment of statements about yourself. A 1 means you strongly agree; a 5 means you strongly disagree. One statement might be “I am someone who is outgoing, sociable.” Another might be “I am someone who is reliable, can always be counted on.” Then there are statements like “I am someone who is sometimes rude to others” and “I am someone who leaves a mess, doesn’t clean up.”

Any would-be driver who strongly agrees with a statement like “I am someone who sometimes behaves irresponsibly” doesn’t really want the job or may be too stupid to do it. More to the point, it’s a test you can fudge. All you have to do is strongly agree with statements like “I am someone who is emotionally stable, not easily upset” and strongly disagree with “I am someone who can be somewhat careless.”

If you can’t tell the difference, you should probably wait until you’re 21 to drive interstate.

The fuzzy nature of such tests means they may or may not predict someone’s behavior on the road in the real world. They make a good stab at it, but it may not really matter. The reason for the tests may have gone away.

ATRI’s boss, the ATA, wants kids to drive for the giant truckload fleets right out of high school. Coming up with “responsibility tests” was probably seen as something to impress lawmakers who might eventually vote to lower the interstate driving age from 21 to 18. That vote is off the table since the 18-year-old driving provision was absorbed into the recent, massive infrastructure bill.

Will ATRI continue to develop the Younger Driver Assessment Tool anyway? Probably. Will anyone ever actually use it? That’s another question altogether.

Meanwhile, the ongoing development has an upside for driver test subjects. According to the ATRI report, “all participants received a $100 gift card for their participation.” Since the battery of tests takes about two hours, that comes out to something like $50 an hour, which given the responsibilities, stress of the job, and historic, pre-deregulation pay scales, is what they should be earning behind the wheel now. LL



John Bendel is Land Line’s contributing editor-at-large. A former trucker, former editor at National Lampoon and two trucking magazines, John is an author, photographer, and freelancer. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and many U.S. newspapers.