Congress Set To Roll Back Extra Safety Rule In Teen Trucking Program

WASHINGTON ― Congress looks poised to undo a safety requirement that the trucking industry says has held back participation in a program for younger drivers.

Lawmakers unveiled a bipartisan budget bill on Sunday that would fund certain federal agencies through the end of the fiscal year ― with a rider blocking the Department of Transportation from requiring freight carriers to point cameras at apprentice truck drivers.

Federal law requires long-haul truckers to be at least 21 years old, but Congress told the department to let truck companies try out drivers ages 18 to 20 as part of a pilot program.

The Safe Driver Apprenticeship Program was supposed to help the trucking industry with its hiring woes, bringing in thousands of eager young drivers, but only a few dozen apprentices have signed up, according to the latest data.

The bipartisan infrastructure law required participating freighters to have modern safety technology on their trucks, such as collision mitigation systems, and the Transportation Department added an extra requirement for inward-facing cameras.

The American Trucking Associations, an industry trade group, blamed the cameras for the low participation in the apprenticeship program.

“These additional mandates have stifled program participation, limiting the utility of data that Congress ordered be collected on drivers in this age cohort,” ATA’s Nathan Mehrens said in an emailed statement.

Mehrens said Congress intended the pilot program to be “a pathway for younger drivers to enter the industry as a first career choice.”

Another possible explanation for the low enrollment is that younger workers aren’t interested in becoming long-haul truckers, which involves spending weeks away from home, when unemployment is low and easier jobs are readily available.

Though few lawmakers are familiar with the teen trucking initiative, there does seem to be bipartisan agreement about doing the industry a favor by relaxing the extra safety rule.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) added the anti-camera language to a Senate spending bill last year, and the provision was tucked into bipartisan House-and-Senate legislation over the weekend without any press statements or public disagreement. Congress has to pass that bill in order to avoid a partial government shutdown by the end of the week. (The trucking provision also strikes a requirement that truck companies register their apprenticeships with the U.S. Department of Labor.)

Younger drivers are known to present higher risks on the road, so the pilot program requires extensive mentoring, in addition to high-tech safety equipment, with the goal of studying whether the requirements can mitigate the danger.

Skeptics of the apprenticeship initiative view it as a straightforward giveaway to the industry, a step toward lowering the interstate driving age, and a threat to all drivers.

“It is beyond shameful to risk lives and trade safety rollbacks for the appearance of bipartisanship,” Zach Cahalan, executive director of the Truck Safety Coalition, said in an email.

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