FMCSA Moving Forward on Program to Open Interstate Commerce to Young Drivers

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is moving forward with a proposal and request for comment on a pilot program to allow younger commercial vehicle drivers currently confined to in-state driving to operate in interstate commerce, potentially relieving pressure the industry’s driver shortage by opening lanes to more drivers.

A Sept. 4 notice in the Federal Register proposes to allow 18- to 20-year-old CDL holders to operate CMVs in interstate commerce while taking part in a 120-hour probationary period and subsequent 280-hour probationary period under an apprenticeship. The program also would allow 19- and 20-year-old drivers who have operated CMVs in intrastate commerce for a minimum of one year and driven 25,000 miles.

The study group drivers would not be allowed to operate vehicles hauling passengers, haz-mat or of special configuration.

The pilot program is similar to the DRIVE Safe Act that aims to bring younger drivers into interstate commerce and follows a July 18 announcement outlining details for the Military Commercial Driver Pilot Program that allows 18-20-year olds with military training to operate in interstate commerce.

All of these initiatives have been on the table for some time.

That DRIVE Safe Act is supported by more than 40 industry groups and has strong bipartisan support, currently co-sponsored by 144 congressmen and 34 senators. The FMCSA action is seen a step towards being prepared for implementation when the DRIVE Safe Act is passed.

“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,” American Trucking Associations president Chris Spear said. “This is an amazing block of talent with unlimited potential.”

“As an industry, we need to find new ways to connect with potential new drivers,” said ATA Chairman Randy Guillot, president of Triple G Express and Southeastern Motor Freight. “By providing young people the opportunity to fully participate in the financially rewarding and dynamic world of trucking, we will be in a better position to bring in a new generation of valuable talent to our industry.”

Currently 49 states and Washington, D.C., allow 18- to 20-year CDL holders to operate in intrastate commerce. As such, a driver could run the entire width of Tennessee, but not cross the bridge into West Memphis, Ark., or continue through town on the roads into Bristol, Va.

“We are fully in favor of testing allowing 18-year-olds to hold a CDL,” said Jim Peters, president and CEO of Knoxville, Tenn.-based TLD Logistics. “We are of the opinion that a properly trained 18-year-old is fully capable of safely operating a tractor trailer.

“Under current law, 18-year-olds are allowed to handle intrastate commerce, so essentially this 18-year-old could go from Knoxville to Memphis. This would potentially require going on I-40 through Nashville, which is one of the 25 largest cities in the United States. So it seems logical that it would also be safe for a driver to cross the state line between Tennessee and Georgia to make a delivery in Northern Georgia.  We think the logic of allowing 18-year-olds to develop the necessary skills to safely operate a tractor trailer and potentially cross the state line makes perfectly logical sense.” 

Under the apprenticeship, younger drivers would operate CMVs under the supervision of an experienced driver and would be required to achieve specific performance benchmarks before advancing. Participants also would drive vehicles equipped with active braking collision-mitigation systems, forward-facing video event capture and speed limiters set to 65 mph.

“Safety is always FMCSA’s top priority, so we encourage drivers, motor carriers and interested citizens to review this proposed new pilot program and share their thoughts and opinions,” FMCSA Deputy Administrator Wiley Deck said.

The FMCSA received 1,118 responses on a similar request for comment made in 2019. More than 1,000 individuals and 95 organizations commented at that time, it said, with just a slightly higher amount of favorable comments. The new comment period will be open for 60 days.

The FMCSA said numerous stakeholders favored the new program, including the ATA, the Truckload Carriers Association, an insurance group and a state highway commission.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has opened many Americans’ eyes to the essential role truckers play in our everyday lives, and providing additional opportunities for 18-20-year-old young adults to enter trucking is a positive step,” said Mark Colson, president and CEO of the Alabama Trucking Association. “You can be a part of an essential business that never stops, not go into massive student loan debt and make a good living … This is a win.”

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and several safety groups oppose the program, largely over safety concerns. The OOIDA contends the driver shortage is an issue more about pay and working conditions than anything else.

The FMCSA also has an open comment period to Nov. 2 on its proposed pilot program to look at pausing a driver’s hours-of-service clock.

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