Don’t give the kid a truck

December 13, 2017

John Bendel


Here we go again.

Rep. Claudia Tenney wants to fill those empty truck seats with 18-year-olds. The upstate New York congresswoman has introduced HR3889 to expand the scope of an existing pilot program for young military veterans to include nonveterans as well.

Tenney’s bill would allow any 18-year-old with a clean driving record, a driving school diploma, and a CDL to drive in interstate commerce at least for the duration of the pilot program. This idea seems to pop up every few years. But the 18-year-olds today are just like 18-year-olds the last time around. They’re only 18 years old.

Study after study after study shows that 18-to-20-year-old drivers have more crashes than other age groups. According to Value Penguin, a financial information website, insurance premiums for 18-year-old car drivers are virtually double that for 21-year-olds. What does that tell you?

And then there’s history. The Vietnam War was the last U.S. war fought by 18-year-old draftees not yet able to vote or drink legally. In response to rising criticism, lawmakers around the country lowered the voting age and, more significantly, the legal drinking age – usually from 21 to 18.

But in less than 10 years, those same lawmakers were busy raising the drinking age. Why? Because more people were dying on the highways – many of them below 21. After the drinking age was raised in most states, studies showed a 19% decrease in traffic fatalities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said raising the drinking age back to 21 saved as many as 1,000 lives a year.

The case against 18-year-old commercial truck drivers is solid. If some states want to allow it within their borders, that’s their business. But I don’t want their 18-year-old truckers in my state. Besides, over-the-road interstate trucking is different from intrastate operations, most of which see drivers home every night. That’s another argument for another time.

Rep. Tenney may have given more thought to the name of her bill than its likely impact. It’s called the Waiving Hindrances to Economic Enterprise and Labor Act or the WHEEL Act. If Rep. Tenney had thought a bit more about the reason those truck seats are empty, she might have been less anxious to send youngsters into the breach. It’s a hard, demanding, sometimes overwhelming job that often pays too little for the sacrifice.

Sure, fleets have surveys that show drivers are less concerned about pay than about the age of their tractor, the way the dispatcher talks to them, or the way the company isn’t warm and fuzzy enough. I’m sure those are real answers to real questions, but they’re not the right questions.

How about, “Would the age of your tractor bother you if you were making more money? Would that dispatcher get under your skin if you earned enough to buy a decent home? Would you give a damn about the company’s communication skills if they paid you a decent wage?”

You won’t find questions like these on the surveys. That’s because big trucking doesn’t want to hear the answers. Even though the number of drivers that leave and they replace each year is roughly the size of their fleet, big carriers want to believe in the “driver shortage.” More to the point, they want Rep. Tenney to believe in it. They want Washington to bring in more bodies, from Mexico, from prisons, and from the ranks of America’s teenagers.

Why? Because it will keep wages down.

From her web site, Rep. Tenney seems like a nice lady. Hell, I met and married my wife in Binghamton in her congressional district, New York’s 22nd. If I had the chance I would ask Claudia two questions:

  1. Ma’am, have you ever wondered why driver turnover is roughly 100 percent? Have you ever thought of that number as absurd? It is, you know. And if you realize that, do you ever wonder why the world behaves as though it’s just the way things are, no big deal?
  2. Bottom line: drivers don’t make enough money. But classic economics tell us the market will take care of that. When demand rises, so will pay. We’re seeing it now – not nearly enough – but we are seeing it. And there are plenty of drivers out there. So why do you feel compelled to intervene in what is really and truly a market issue?

Please think it over, Claudia. I’d hate to think big trucking has you by the big toe.

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.