Truckload gets its wish with under-21 pilot program

September 25, 2020

John Bendel


“I’ve got it! We’ll safen up the highways with 18-year-old truckload drivers!”

Is that what someone at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration jumped from his chair and shouted? No, wait. Maybe it was at the ATA. Either way, the wretched idea has taken hold.

In a proposal that defies reality, history and common sense, the FMCSA has proposed a pilot program to allow kids as young as 18 to drive in interstate commerce. The very idea is profoundly wrong, corrupt, and – for me – infuriating.

You can submit comments on the under-21 pilot program to the agency by clicking here. The comment period ends Nov. 9.

The mission of FMCSA as stated on their website is “to reduce crashes, injuries and fatalities involving large trucks and buses.” There is no conceivable way this proposal furthers that mission. None.

Many sources define political corruption as the use of power by government officials for illegitimate private gain – a definition that pretty much describes this initiative. Here, the FMCSA – pressured from above by the DOT – uses its power to benefit big truckload carriers and their wealthy owners. In return, the folks at FMCSA get to keep their jobs.

What do those wealthy owners want? To expand the pool of drivers and driver wannabes that their recruitment industry inhales in staggering numbers. A lower qualifying age will bring a few hundred thousand more within range of their human vacuums.

The FMCSA under-21 program, they say, will help meet a “driver shortage” that threatens supply chains and thus the economy. The same “shortage” has been threatening disaster for more than a quarter-century. It never happens. Know why? There is no “driver shortage.” Never has been.

“Shortage” is what carriers call the rushing current of drivers who pass through their fleets only to learn how stressful the job is and how little it pays. If a “driver shortage” actually existed and markets were truly free, drivers would be earning a lot more money than they do. Instead, driver turnover of 70% to 100% a year holds driver pay down.

The FMCSA seems ready to help feed this grotesque machine.

The pilot program itself is for show. Participants will be picked and vetted. The results are all but predetermined. The bad news comes after the pilot program when 18-year-old truckload drivers range the continent on their own, away from home for weeks at a time. Kids driving intrastate do not drive as far or for as long – even in Texas.

The ATA says if they’re old enough for military service, they’re old enough to drive truckload. But in the military, those kids are closely supervised. A better comparison is the national drinking age of 21, reluctantly set by Congress and the Reagan administration after bitter experience.

No matter how stringent the terms of the program, it involves the risk inherent in our long, sad history with 18-year-old drivers. The very best the pilot program itself can hope for is that it doesn’t kill anyone. The pressures and temptations that characterize truckload life are not part of the pilot program.

If all that had not been enough to infuriate me, this statement about the pilot program by an ATA executive was: “This is a significant step toward improving safety on our nation’s roads, setting a standard for these drivers that is well beyond what 49 states currently require.”

“Standard” applies to those accepted into the pilot program, not the young drivers who will come later.

It celebrates the hand-picked nature of participants, indicating just how meaningless the pilot program is.

But it’s the first part that stokes my outrage: “This is a significant step toward improving safety on our nation’s roads …”

That’s not an exaggeration. It’s not stretching the facts. It’s not hyperbole. Those all involve at least an element of truth. The dictionary says to lie is to convey a false image or impression. That makes this a willful lie.

Is that all it takes to subvert the integrity of a safety agency responsible for real lives on America’s roads? LL

John Bendel

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.