Controversial federal pilot program could put people as young as 18 behind the wheels of semi-trucks

Published: Jan. 20, 2022 at 10:30 PM CST
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JACKSON, Miss. (WLBT) - The federal government is setting up a pilot program that would allow people as young as 18 to drive semi-trucks across state lines.

It’s in response to a national supply chain crisis and also a shortage of qualified truck drivers.

Just about every state - including Mississippi - already allows 18 to 21 year-olds to drive semis, but they have to remain within state borders.

With this new program, however, that age group could cross state lines.

“It’s an experiment with our lives on the line and the young truckers,” Russ Swift said.

Swift is a member of the Truck Safety Coalition and said the federal government’s new program that would allow teenagers to operate big rigs is a dangerous idea.

He lost his son and son’s friend to a teenage semi-truck driver in the 90′s.

“By the time they realized that the headlights were a truck across both lanes of the highway, it was too late to stop and they went under the flatbed trailer,” he said.

The program comes as part of Congress’ bipartisan infrastructure package and would allow up to 3,000 eighteen to twenty-one-year-olds haul loads across state lines.

People in the trucking industry say this is a good thing because it will attract more drivers and alleviate supply chain issues.

“We are short about 80,000 drivers,” President of RoadMaster Drivers School Brad Ball said. “That’s expected to grow quite a bit in the next 10 years if something like this pilot program isn’t introduced to allow us to recruit more drivers into the field.”

Ball said truck drivers are retiring faster than new drivers are entering the field. He added that the pandemic caused a lot of drivers to retire early and forced some states to close driving schools.

He hopes the pilot program will open up more recruitment opportunities.

“We send 18 to 20-year-olds to war, and they drive all kinds of big equipment,” he said. “I think it’s only right that we give them an opportunity under specialized safe training procedures to prove themselves as safe professional truck drivers as well.”

But Swift said the reason there’s not enough drivers is because they aren’t paid by the hour.

“There is no trucker shortage,” he said. “They get in and they burn out. New ones come in and burn out just as fast. I don’t see how this is going to change it at all other than getting some of those young drivers killed.”

Ball said the program would keep the young drivers safe because it requires trucks to have forward facing cameras, automatic emergency braking, and other special equipment.

However, Swift said the safety requirements still don’t change that fact that teens are the most dangerous driving population.

The program still has to get approval from the Office of Management and Budget before it begins taking applications.

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