Congressional bill would lower age limit for truck drivers

Author: Tom Ramstack - July 10, 2018 - Updated: July 26, 2018

(Photo by phaisarn2517, istockphoto)

WASHINGTON — Colorado has a lot to gain from a bill pending in Congress that would lower the minimum age for interstate driving of big-rig trucks, according to its legislative and trucking industry supporters.

The current federal age limit is 21 years old. The DRIVE-Safe Act would lower the limit to 18 years old, which is the same as Colorado’s age restriction for commercial drivers licenses.

“The driver shortage is very real in Colorado,” said Dennis Atencio, vice president of risk management for Henderson-based Apex Transportation Inc.

The U.S. Labor Department estimates the shortage at 63,000 jobs nationwide. Weld County’s oil drilling companies and Denver’s retailers are among the industries feeling the pinch.

Atencio, who supports a lower age limit, said trucking companies can train younger drivers adequately to avoid the carelessness of youth. In some states that allow younger drivers, 18-to-20-year-olds already have shown they can drive commercial trucks safely, he said.

However, safe driving is only part of the skill drivers need as technology transforms the trucking industry, Atencio said. Drivers also must understand electronics designed to ensure public safety.

Finding skilled workers of any age is a challenge. “Many companies are offering sign-on bonuses or now paying for the driver’s benefits, and some are even doing more,” Atencio said.

Trucking companies have found that “a driver will chase the money,” he said. “In the Denver metro area, you have most companies all fighting for that same driver.”

In Congress, the Drive Safe Act has won support from Colorado U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman, R-Aurora.

“Having served in both the Army and the Marine Corps, I know that 18-year-olds are trusted to drive everything in our military’s inventory, and it should be no different for civilians driving on our interstate highways,” Coffman told Colorado Politics. “The driver shortage not only impacts the Colorado economy but the entire country, and government at every level must be focused on removing any barriers that discourage young people from becoming drivers.”

Colorado U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, R-Windsor, added, “States should have the authority to determine the minimum driving age for interstate truck drivers, not the federal government.”

In addition to passing the normal tests, the DRIVE-Safe Act requires 18-to-20-year olds to complete a 400-hour apprenticeship with experienced commercial truckers before they could drive alone between states. They already can drive alone within Colorado but not over state lines.

In Colorado, the challenge of finding qualified drivers is heightened by legalization of recreational marijuana, said Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Motor Carriers Association.

“Our industry is a zero-tolerance sector because of concerns of having an impaired driver steering an 80,000 lb. truck down the highway,” Fulton said.

Trucking companies are required by federal law to conduct pre-employment alcohol and drug tests on drivers, followed by random tests after they begin working.

“With the introduction of recreational marijuana, we saw a significant increase in pre-employment test failures, which precludes a company from hiring that individual,” Fulton said. “Further, we witnessed a greater number of random test failures of some existing drivers, which disqualifies them from continuing to drive.”

Proposals for younger truckers on interstate roads will get a test drive later this year when the U.S. Transportation Department begins a pilot program for 18-to-20-year olds. Only younger truckers with military training and experience operating commercial vehicles will be eligible at first.

Republicans broadly support the DRIVE-Safe Act, but safety advocates among Democrats caution against it.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 16- to 19-year-old drivers are nearly three times more likely to be killed in automobile crashes than older motorists. The 18-wheel commercial trucks are considered among the greatest hazards of the nation’s roadways.

Sponsors of the DRIVE-Safe Act said they decided to assume the risks after listening to retailers, manufacturers and other business owners complain about difficulties of getting deliveries on time, resulting in higher prices for consumers.

Fulton puts part of the blame on high schools, where counselors pressure students to seek professions requiring college degrees.

“We need to re-introduce trade school training” for students “who may not be interested in college but a great job in the trades or truck-driving,” he said.

The DRIVE-Safe Act, H.R. 5358, was introduced March 21 by Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. It is awaiting committee action.

Tom Ramstack

Tom Ramstack