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Infrastructure bill could open the door to younger truck drivers

The legislation that was approved by the Senate last month could allow 18-year-olds to drive heavy trucks across state lines.

Over The Road Truckers - Volvo
The available pool of truck drivers may soon expand.

It seems everything is in short supply these days, from computer chips to childcare to retail workers. Even truck drivers are apparently hard to come by, which is a critical issue because so many goods are transported on the nation's highways. To alleviate this deficit, the federal government is looking to expand who's allowed to drive over-the-road trucks.

Right now, most states allow 18-year-olds to pilot big rigs, however, federal law prevents them from crossing state lines until they're 21, which is a major restriction. Fortunately, this situation could soon change. Part of the infrastructure bill approved by the Senate last month includes the Apprenticeship Pilot Program, a provision that, along with certain restrictions, would allow 18- to 20-year-olds to drive commercial trucks across state lines, enlarging the pool of potential drivers in hopes of alleviating the shortage.

Candidates younger than 21 would need to have a commercial driver's license (duh) and meet other more-stringent requirements. According to this proposed legislation, "The apprentice shall complete 120 hours of on-duty time, of which not less than 80 hours shall be driving time in a commercial motor vehicle." They must also be capable of safely driving on interstate highways, rural roads and in city traffic, pretty important stuff. After completing the initial 120-hour stint, apprentices are subject to another more-stringent probationary period lasting 280 hours. Of course, it includes more driving, but also focuses on other aspects of long-haul trucking, such as backing and maneuvering in tight spaces, how to refuel a big rig and pre-trip planning, among many other things.

During both probationary periods, drivers face certain restrictions. They can only operate trucks with automatic transmissions, are fitted with collision-mitigation technology and are governed to 65 mph.

According to some sources, expanding the pool of eligible drivers will do little to alleviate the shortage. Long hours, difficult conditions and extended periods away from home lead many truck drivers to switch to other blue-collar fields, such as construction. On the other hand, some say there isn't a shortage of drivers at all; rather, turnover is the real issue. Drivers are leaving as quickly as new ones are joining the field, which means there's never a surplus. Offering higher pay and benefits or doing more to retain existing drivers might be a better path forward.

Still, opening the door to more and younger commercial drivers isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it could help in the long run.

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