In Montana, 18-year-olds can drive a commercial truck all the way across the state. But because of a law dating back to the 1930s, they can't drive the same truck the 47 miles between St. Regis and Wallace, Idaho.
A bipartisan Senate bill would remove those federal regulatory barriers and establish new safety training procedures for drivers. Adding 18- to 20-year-olds to the ranks of interstate commercial drivers also would help address a growing driver shortage.
According to the American Trucking Association, the U.S. has a shortage of 51,000 truckers and that number is expected to increase to 174,000 by 2026.
Sens. Jon Tester, D-Montana, and Todd Young, R-Indiana, introduced the Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy (DRIVE) Safe Act last week.
Most states, including Montana, allow individuals to get a commercial drivers license at age 18 and they can drive trucks within the state where they’re licensed. But rules dating back to the 1930s prevent them from moving goods across state lines until they’re 21.
The bill would establish a two-step training program requiring drivers under the age of 21 to complete an apprenticeship that includes at least 400 hours of on-duty time and 240 hours of driving time with an experienced driver in the cab. The apprenticeship “would help guarantee that younger drivers are trained beyond current safety standards,” according to Tester’s office.
But at the Bonner Town Pump truck stop, where longtime driver Jim Wascher was refueling his rig Tuesday, he expressed skepticism about having younger drivers on the road.
“I personally wouldn’t be comfortable with it,” he said. “I think they need more time on the road, both in trucks and just driving in general, before they’re ready for this. People age 18-20 don’t have the mental capacity to handle this job, in my opinion.”
Wascher said long-haul truck driving doesn’t necessarily require a lot of skill, but it does require a lot of experience.
“It just takes a while to learn how to do it right,” he said. “I wouldn’t feel safe being on the road with people who haven’t driven for a long time.”
The legislation is supported by the Motor Carriers of Montana.
“It is difficult to understand why an 18-year-old can drive clear across the state but can’t drive 58 miles from Sidney to Williston,” said Barry “Spook” Stang, executive vice president of the organization. “The DRIVE Safe Act will provide much needed training and opportunities for young Montanans to become professional truck drivers and help fill the driver shortage across the U.S.''
In Montana, 65 percent of communities depend exclusively on trucks to move their goods and approximately one out of every 17 jobs are associated with the trucking industry, according to Tester’s office.
“Providing this workforce development opportunity for young drivers will lead to more comprehensive training, expanded career opportunities, and access to higher paying jobs,” Tester said in a statement. “This bipartisan bill will also provide a big boost to Montana communities that rely almost exclusively on trucks to move goods in and out of the state.”
Jon Eisen, senior vice president of government relations for the International Food Service Distributors Association, said food distributors get paid an average of $63,000 a year.
“These are good jobs with benefits,” he said. “They provide a good opportunity for a young person who doesn’t want to go to college. But young people aren’t entering the industry. The average truck driver is 49 years old and the average individual going to Commercial Driver’s License school is 35 years old. So companies are trying to recruit high school students who would prefer to go to work rather than go to school.”
Eisen said the new legislation creates safety training that isn’t in place currently.
“That’s the way this program is designed,” he said. “We’re not just throwing them the keys and saying if you have a CDL you can drive. This bill creates a two-part program. You obtain the CDL and then go through additional training. The goal is to bring these drivers into the industry safely.”
A version of the legislation has been introduced before, but it was opposed by the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the American Public Health Association, the Consumer Federation of America and other safety-advocacy organizations and was never brought to a vote.
This year, the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association sent a letter to Congress saying it would make for unsafe conditions and hurt wages for all current truck drivers.
But Eisen said younger workers are desperately needed in the industry.
He noted that because workers in the food distribution industry often have to unload boxes of food products, it doesn’t suit older workers.
“Think of a local bar and grill,” he said. “The cooler could be down a couple of flights of stairs. This is difficult work, so a food distribution company needs younger drivers. And there’s going to be an increase in demand for courier drivers to handle the rising e-commerce industry. It’s a similar situation. They’re handling product in the same way.”
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, there were 37,133 fatalities from auto crashes in the U.S. in 2017, and Montana had one of the highest per-capita fatality rates at 17.7 deaths per 100,000 people.
“Certainly, we know that the roads, unfortunately, are not as safe as they should be in the country,” Eisen said. “Crashes had been coming down significantly over the last few decades but they increased a little bit over the last few years. I couldn’t tell you why.”
A study released by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety blamed in-car touchscreens and smartphone use for the increase in crashes.