Will the New Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program for Younger Truck Drivers Cause More Accidents?
It certainly very well may. If nothing else, look at the age of these drivers relative to the age of experienced men and women who have years of experience on the roads.
Research conducted at Virginia Tech has shown that a truck driver’s age and inexperience are major factors in commercial trucking accidents. However, the 2020 study found that the less experienced truck drivers were more likely to crash, no matter what their age.
Young Novice Drivers are by Definition Inexperienced
In addition to inexperience, other characteristics of adolescence may also play a part in elevating crash risk. Immaturity, risk-taking, poor judgment and decision-making, and peer pressure may all contribute to young driver crash risk,” the report said.
In the State of Georgia, commercial truck drivers must be at least 18 years, and if between the age of 18 to 21, these young drivers are restricted to drive in Georgia only (“intrastate”).
But due to the trucking industry’s shortage of qualified drivers, the federal government has created an apprenticeship program for young truckers that allows them to drive interstate—into, out of, and through Georgia. This may mean more big rigs on Georgia roads and potentially more semi accidents.
The Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program
The head of the American Trucking Associations said last fall that the industry needed about 80,000 more drivers. To address this, the new federal program, called the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program, will allow 18-to-20-year-old drivers to drive 18-wheelers across state lines provided they have a more experienced driver in the cab with them, and the truck meets certain safety standards.
The program was proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in September 2020 and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, enacted in November, required the creation of the program.
The FMCSA will issue a specific exemption to the normal age restrictions for each young driver admitted to the program. In addition, semis used in the program will be required to have certain safety technologies, including the following:
- Automatic emergency braking;
- Forward-facing video cameras; and
- A top speed automatically limited to 65 miles per hour.
These apprentice big rig drivers won’t be permitted to drive trucks with more than one trailer or trucks carrying hazardous materials. And the accompanying driver must be at least 26 and have at least five years of experience driving semis. In addition, the supervising driver must also have had two years of incident-free driving, with no crashes or tickets, before they are allowed to train a new, younger semi driver.
The program also has two probationary periods of 120-hours and 280-hours. In those periods, an experienced driver will need to be in the passenger seat.
Criticism from Safety Advocates
There are many who don’t approve of the new program. They contend that it places potentially dangerous, inexperienced drivers behind the wheel of some of the largest vehicles on road.
The Truck Safety Coalition has publicly objected to the program since it was first proposed because of the hazards posed by teen drivers.
“We’d like to see [Transportation] Secretary [Pete] Buttigieg demonstrate a genuine commitment to safety and publicly commit to terminating the program under his authority as DOT Secretary after the first fatality or serious injury,” Truck Safety Coalition executive director Zach Cahalan.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that a University of Michigan study showed that there was a 500% increase in injury crashes for truck drivers younger than 21 compared to truck drivers overall.
Cathy Chase, president of the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, also objected to the program.
“It makes no sense to put one of the most dangerous driving populations behind the wheel of 80,000-pound rigs,” she said.
Chase went on to say that apprentice drivers could complete the program well before reaching their 21st birthday and could drive a commercial truck without any of the safety equipment required by the program.
Moreover, she argued that there are other ways to deal with driver shortages, like making the job more appealing by increasing pay and reducing driving hours.
In addition, the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety said the combined 400 hours of training is not nearly enough time to prepare these young drivers.
“They can get through that probationary period in a matter of weeks, so we’re not talking about a significant amount of time that they’re going to receive that training,” commented Peter Kurdock, the organization’s General Counsel.
The Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program is expected to be operational soon, according to the federal government.
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