DRIVE-Safe Act is more ATA double-speak

May 9, 2018

John Bendel


The ATA wants the feds to allow drivers as young as 18 in interstate commerce, so they are pushing a bill in Congress misnamed the DRIVE-Safe Act. At least one aspect of this bill is not about safety. It’s about the carriers’ inability to retain the thousands upon thousands of drivers they hire every year – a phenomenon they ironically refer to as the “driver shortage.”

Big fleets would rather recruit 18- to 21-year-olds than cooperate on changes that would bring mature drivers knocking at their doors. Those changes could include substantial detention pay, guaranteed home time, and guaranteed minimum earnings.

Oh yeah, and higher basic pay. Not a percent here, a percent there, and one-time sign-on bonuses, but a serious increase. Double would be a good start.

But that’s too challenging to think through, so let’s just bring on the kids. In April, Dan Murray brought up the subject at the annual meeting of the Private Truck Council. Murray is vice president of the American Transportation Research Institute, which he hopes will develop a “younger driver assessment tool.” The tool, according to a document on the ATRI website, “would identify younger drivers who exhibit many of the same characteristics as safe, mature commercial drivers.”

Of course, ATRI is an arm of the ATA.

The issue with 18-year-olds in interstate driving is public safety. Indisputably, drivers that young as a group have more accidents. Deadly statistics prove it. So the ATRI has been circling the issue looking for ways to make it disappear.

Not every 18- to 21-year-old is the same crash risk as every other. In 2017, ATRI sponsored a study at the University of Minnesota to determine factors that would enable carriers to sift through the kid applicants for safer individuals. The study came back in August with factors like driving records and health, which carriers have long used to evaluate driver candidates.

But the study also includes elements of personality. Among them the “five domain personality assessment,” including extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and openness. Clearly more relevant are these three personality traits: impulsivity, aggression and sensation seeking. Fine. But how can we measure any of those traits?

Such measures would be speculative even after spending a few months with a candidate on the road. How can they be established with any credibility over the course of hours or days in, say, an office, a laboratory, or a hospital?

They can’t. But that won’t stop ATRI from trying. Perhaps ATRI will commission more studies. Don’t be surprised if such experiments show that it can be done. Sure, unusually mature 18-year-olds can be identified and safely put to work on America’s highways.

That’s in the nature of psychological studies, particularly when a specific outcome is hoped for by all involved. The phenomenon called “experimenter effects” was established in – what else? – a psychological study in 1966.

Since then, psychological studies in general have come under more scrutiny. In 2010, for example, an infamous study supposedly proved that extrasensory perception is real. The experiment ignited an explosive debate over the validity, not just of that individual study, but of the methods involved in virtually all such research. It’s called the “reproducibility crisis,” referring to studies by one researcher being reproduced by another with the same results. According to a 2016 survey, more than 70 percent of researchers have tried and failed to reproduce another scientist’s experiments.

Neither the ATRI nor anyone else is about to winnow good potential truck drivers from the general youth population in any believable way. Even if they could, the process could not possibly turn out the 50,000 drivers the ATA claims we need right now. Never mind the 160,000 they claim we’ll need in a few years.

Let’s hope lawmakers have the good sense to turn down the DRIVE-Safe Act.