Sen. Cotton again seeks to allow trained truck drivers under 21 to haul interstate freight

by Jeff Della Rosa ( 1,419 views 

U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., has renewed his support for a bill that would allow commercial truck drivers between 18 and 21 years old to haul freight across state lines as the trucking industry struggles with a driver shortage. Existing law restricts the drivers in that age group to only haul freight within a state.

For the second consecutive year, the top issue in the trucking industry is the driver shortage, according to a recent report by the American Transportation Research Institute, the nonprofit research organization of trade group American Trucking Associations. The report, Critical Issues in the Trucking Industry — 2018, was based on a survey of 1,539 respondents, of which 47.5% were carriers; 41.3%, drivers; and 11.2%, other industry stakeholders. Hours-of-service ranked as the industry’s No. 2 issue, while driver retention rose two spots to No. 3.

The top strategy to combat the driver shortage is to develop an apprenticeship program to attract, train and retain safe 18- to 20-year-old interstate drivers, according to the report. It noted the strategy has gained support with the introduction of the Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy Act, or DRIVE-Safe Act. It was initially introduced in the House on March 21, 2018, followed by a companion bill in the Senate on Aug. 16, but they didn’t come to a vote. Cotton signed on to support the Senate bill Aug. 27, and has since renewed his support after similar bills with bipartisan and bicameral support were introduced Feb. 26 in the House and Senate.

“We believe that passage is likely because we have Democratic support this Congress,” said James Arnold, spokesman for Cotton. “Working across party lines, Republicans agreed to changes requested by Democrats to position the bill for success.”

Some of the changes included clarifications to the definition of an apprentice, who’s someone under the age of 21 with a commercial driver’s license, and that the apprentice would be accompanied by an experienced driver, with at least two years of experience. The previous bill had defined experienced drivers as having a minimum of one year of experience. Another change addressed concerns about driving requirements for apprentices and removed a training gap in regard to city traffic.

Sens. Cotton, Todd Young, R-Ind., and Jon Tester, D-Mont., reintroduced the bill in the Senate to address the driver shortage and improve safety and job opportunities for young drivers. Co-sponsors include Sens. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., Angus King, I-Maine, Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Jerry Moran, R-Kan.

“Tens of thousands of commercial trucking jobs go unfilled each year across the United States,” Cotton said in a statement. “To make that problem worse, current regulations prevent younger drivers from participating in interstate trucking at all, denying them the opportunity for good-paying jobs. The DRIVE-Safe Act tackles both problems by allowing drivers under the age of 21 to pursue this career, as long as their employer adopts an apprenticeship program that includes rigorous training and safety standards.”

The DRIVE-Safe Act would establish an apprenticeship program to allow drivers between 18 and 21 years ago to haul freight from one state to another. After receiving a commercial driver’s license, apprentices would receive training beyond existing standards, including at least 400 hours of on-duty time and 240 hours of driving time with an experienced driver in the cab with them. All trucks used in the program must have active braking collision mitigation systems, forward-facing video event capture and a speed governor set at 65 mph.

The companion bill in the House is co-sponsored by Reps. Trey Hollingsworth, R-Ind., Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., Bruce Westerman, R-Ark., Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, and Al Green, D-Texas.

“The strong, bipartisan, bicameral support behind this legislation demonstrates how real a threat the driver shortage presents to our nation’s economic security of the long-term, and how serious our lawmakers are about addressing it with common-sense solutions,” said Chris Spear, president and CEO of the American Trucking Associations. “Given the broad coalition of interests backing this measure, there is growing understanding across the country that the impact of this issue reaches far beyond just trucking and commercial vehicles. It is a strain on the entire supply chain, from the manufacturers and producers on down to retail and the end consumer, who will see higher prices at the store.”

The trucking association is a member of the DRIVE Safe Act Coalition, co-led by the association and the International Foodservice Distributors of America, and includes the National Association of Manufacturers, National Restaurant Association, National Retail Federation, Retail Industry Leaders of America and more than 40 other national trade associations and companies.

Trade group Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Association opposes the DRIVE-Safe Act and believes that the driver shortage is a myth. The group’s research foundation recently released two documents — one showing the industry doesn’t have an issue with a driver shortage but with overcapacity and driver retention. The other document shows how driver wages have fallen at large carriers and that many have moved to smaller fleets.

“We are concerned about the perpetuation of a myth of driver shortage,” said Todd Spencer, the group’s president. “This misinformation is used to push agendas that are harmful to the industry and highway safety.”

The group, which is based in Kansas City, Mo., noted the push to reduce the driver age requirement to 18, from 21. “If safety is the top priority when considering a change to a regulation, when it comes to age, the number should be raised, not lowered,” he said.

The driver retention issue could be mitigated with other solutions, according to the group, citing the correlation between wages and highway safety.

“Most carriers with high turnover do so by design,” Spencer said. “They could deal with driver turnover by offering better wages and benefits and improved working conditions. But putting younger drivers behind the wheel of a truck isn’t the solution because it does nothing to address the underlying issues that push drivers out of the industry. It merely exacerbates the churn.”