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Senate hearing explores safety concerns regarding younger truck drivers, other industry issues

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Washington — A bipartisan bill that would allow drivers younger than 21 to operate commercial motor vehicles interstate is “a step toward safety,” American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear said during a Feb. 4 hearing convened by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee’s Transportation and Safety Subcommittee.

Introduced in February 2019 by Sens. Todd Young (R-IN) and Jon Tester (D-MT), the Developing Responsible Individuals for a Vibrant Economy Act, or DRIVE-Safe Act (S. 569), would create an apprenticeship program for commercial driver’s license holders younger than 21. Apprentices would be required to complete two probationary periods totaling 400 hours, including at least 240 hours of CMV driving time during which they are accompanied by a driver 21 or older.

During the hearing, which examined the state of the trucking industry and included testimony from four other industry stakeholders, Spear said the training standards outlined in the legislation reinforce a commitment to safety.

Forty-nine states allow drivers as young as 18 to obtain a CDL for intrastate travel (Hawaii does not), Spear added before challenging the logic behind one extreme: A teen driver could traverse an 850-mile stretch of California but not legally drive 10 miles from Providence, RI, to Rehoboth, MA.

“This bill is responsible,” Spear said. “It’s safety-minded. It’s the right thing to do.”

However, some on the panel expressed opposition to the legislation, including Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association Executive Vice President Lewie Pugh and Truck Safety Coalition President Dawn King. Pugh, a CDL holder, and OOIDA have long contended that the impetus for the bill, a perceived driver shortage, is nonexistent.

“Far too many members of Congress have accepted the driver shortage myth, which illustrates a troubling lack of understanding about our industry,” Pugh noted in his written testimony. “Taking a closer look at what’s actually occurring in trucking will reveal there is no driver shortage at all. It will also show that embracing some of the solutions proposed by those peddling the myth will only compound many of the actual problems facing our industry.”

Addressing a question from the committee’s ranking member, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), King urged the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to analyze data from the states that allow drivers at age 18 to obtain a CDL for intrastate travel. Her written testimony cited several sources showing that the crash rates of 18- to 20-year-old drivers are “significantly” higher.

“Nobody that’s in their first job gets the best routes,” King said, “and so we’re concerned that the younger drivers will end up on the longer routes that will take them into states they’re not familiar with, so we really believe that the crash data that’s within the states needs to be studied first.”

The panelists expressed various frustrations with FMCSA policy. Pugh called for the repeal of the agency’s “failed” electronic logging device mandate, while Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance President John Samis noted in his written testimony that “regulatory activity at the agency – one of FMCSA’s basic responsibilities – has come to a near standstill, and the necessary work of maintaining and updating the regulations is suffering.”

Spear further advocated improved federal investment in infrastructure, stating that well-designed infrastructure “breeds good safety policy” in the long run.

“In terms of the regulatory side, we’re not fearful of regulation,” Spear said. “What we do ask for is clear and concise regulation. When you have ambiguity, you have litigation, and that adds costs on our industry. Horrendous costs. So, the balance between that and maintaining good safety regulations that have a true and measurable impact, we recommend supporting that.”

 

Hours-of-service regulations, speed limiters and truck parking were among the other topics addressed by the panel, which also included Jake Parnell, a member of the board of directors and transportation subcommittee of the Livestock Marketing Association.

In February 2019, Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-IN) introduced a companion bill to the DRIVE-Safe Act in the House.

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