I’ve had some secondhand second thoughts about those 18-year-old drivers

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In my last column, I mentioned something about looking at online reader comments, and how truckers tend to do a better job of staying on topic and making actual contributions to whatever the story is about compared to what you find on the internet in general.

I also said something about regularly checking our reader comments to see what drivers have to say about whichever topic is taking its turn as one of the “hot” ones of the moment.

These days, the question of whether 18-year-olds should be allowed to drive commercial vehicles interstate has been getting a lot of attention, in part because the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has announced it is seeking comments about a proposed pilot program that would qualify 18- to 20-year-olds to drive interstate.

By the way, if it seems the FMCSA has been doing a lot of this “public comment” stuff lately, they have. And reading between the lines of what the people at FMCSA have been saying, it’s clear they are paying attention to the feedback they’re getting on this and other topics. But this time I am disappointed by the method by which they’re taking comments. It’s the kind of governmental, designed-by-a-bureaucrat, user-unfriendly online method that practically guarantees a low response and almost makes you wonder if that’s on purpose.

I don’t have room to even try to explain the process, which is why you won’t find an explanation in any of the articles about how they want your comments.

That’s too bad, because if the feedback to the story we ran on the pilot program is any indication, there are a lot of strong opinions out there waiting to be shared.

In the past, I’ve written in favor of letting younger drivers drive interstate, or at least for it to be an option. But having read some of the comments on our site, I’m going to attempt to do something here that’s so rare in today’s media, heck, in our entire society, some might consider it un-American — with a few prompts by the audience, I’m going to make a case for the other side.

If our small sampling is any indication, people who are already OTR drivers aren’t too keen on lowering the age of eligibility. In fact, a few suggested it should be raised. We know that’s not going to happen, just like we know the big motivation behind the push for younger drivers is to ease the driver shortage in the OTR truckload sector. Aside from the immediate potential relief, the argument has been made that this will allow young people into trucking before they are lost to other professions.

“You realize 18- to 20-year-olds already can drive intrastate?” reader Nathaniel McComb wrote.

I’m not sure whether Nathaniel was pointing out that that the profession is already open to 18-year-olds if they are interested, or the fact that our highways aren’t strewn with the carnage left in the wake of the young intrastate drivers who are already out there. Or maybe both.

In any case, there’s a good point to be found there. And it’s a point that reader Rachel Booth expanded on:

“I think intrastate driving from 18 to 20 is a good idea,” she wrote. “It gives them experience and more of an idea of what the job involves physically. Interstate driving should remain at 21. Leave it alone.”

Now, that’s reasonable thinking, Rachel. OTR driving is some of the most demanding, not to mention highest-paying, driving there is. What profession starts kids at the most demanding, highest paying level?

What’s wrong with letting them earn their chops for a few years? At that age, even when they make big life decisions, most of those decisions don’t stick. Nothing does. The ages of 18 to 25 is “grownup orientation” for most people. Most of them struggle with the concept of having to work, period, especially at a job that’s, like, hard.

“Would the 18- to 20-year-old people even be interested in being drivers?” reader Andy Schmitz asks. “Our government loves spending money on research & polling — have they actually visited high school seniors or anyone 18-20 to ask if they would be interested in a job that would put them on the road 300 days a year?”

Those pushing for opening up interstate driving to younger drivers claim that the industry loses too many young people to other professions because they make them wait until they are 21. Really? Are high school seniors looking out the window, noses pressed up against the glass, staring at big rigs as they go by and whispering to themselves, “If only …”?

No, they aren’t. In fact, nobody is. That’s the problem. The long-haul truckload trucking segment has long had a problem attracting new talent. And now, just as the demand is greatest, the industry finds itself competing to draw from the tightest labor pool in 50 years.

Trucking knows it’s the ugly duckling in that competition. They’ve been making efforts to gussy up its image. They’ve even raised mileage rates. But money isn’t everything. And they’ve tried to let women and other minorities know the door of opportunity is open to them.

Now they are trying to create a new door, not because it’s the right thing to do, but out a growing sense of desperation.

The benefits would be minimal, and it hardly seems worth the risk. Veteran drivers bristle at the idea, and who would know better?

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Klint Lowry has been a journalist for over 20 years. Prior to that, he did all kinds work, including several that involved driving, though he never graduated to big rigs. He worked at newspapers in the Detroit, Tampa and Little Rock, Ark., areas before coming to The Trucker in 2017. Having experienced such constant change at home and at work, he felt a certain kinship to professional truck drivers. Because trucking is more than a career, it's a way of life, Klint has always liked to focus on every aspect of the quality of truckers' lives.
For over 30 years, the objective of The Trucker editorial team has been to produce content focused on truck drivers that is relevant, objective and engaging. After reading this article, feel free to leave a comment about this article or the topics covered in this article for the author or the other readers to enjoy. Let them know what you think! We always enjoy hearing from our readers.

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