Is there a place for teenagers in a large institution? This is an age-old debate. One side says yes, pointing to a lack of drivers, while the other disagrees from a security point of view.

But it looks like the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration is ready to put that to the test by giving high school graduates a chance to prove they’re ready for interstate commerce.

Motor carriers involved in the debate have an opportunity to take action through the Safe Driver Education Pilot Program (SDAP), which seeks to analyze the safety benefits and risks of allowing drivers younger than 21 to operate in interstate commerce through a supervised training program.

Lindsay Trent, Co-Founder and CEO Next Generation Trucking Associationbelieves this is exactly what the industry needs as the driver shortage continues to worsen.

“This pilot program opens it up so that people between the ages of 18 and 20 can drive across state lines,” Trent said. “We’re going to get the research results and the numbers to make sure it’s safe.”

The training program will require drivers under the age of 21 to pass competence evaluations and pass two probationary periods, of which interstate driving will be permitted in accordance with supervision an experienced passenger seat driver who is at least 26 years old, has a valid CDL, has at least five years of interstate commercial driving experience, and has been employed for the past two years.

After the second probationary period, the drivers will become apprentices allowed operate in interstate commerce without supervision.

Motor carriers that wish to participate in SDAP must first have a training program approved by the Department of Labor to offer the training and must record and report their findings to the Department of Labor.

The three-year program will collect data on participating drivers until they reach age 21 and can operate in interstate commerce without claiming an exemption.

“It’s all about getting the statistics to make sure 18- to 20-year-old drivers are just as safe as, say, 30-year-old drivers,” Trent said.

Current Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations restrict drivers under the age of 21 from employment in interstate commerce, but minor drivers allowed work in intrastate commerce at age 18 after obtaining a commercial learner’s permit or CDL.

Trent calls the nearly century-old interstate ruling “outdated” because of its harshness. Although it is designed to keep young and inexperienced drivers from driving long distances, it does not apply equally to all parts of the map. For example, an 18-year-old CDL driver from the Chicago suburbs in northwest Indiana can drive 300 miles to the other side of the state, but under no circumstances dare to make a quick trip to Chicago.

Trent argues that the restrictive nature of trucking has pushed the younger generation toward other career paths, such as welding or HVAC, despite trucking’s reputation as a high-paying profession that doesn’t require a college degree.

In fact, she said the average age of a new truck driver is 39.

But FMCSA hopes the SDAP’s findings could lead to more opportunities for future generations of young drivers — at the very least, it’ll get them a foot in the door.

“I think in five years we’ll see 18-20-year-olds driving on the interstate,” Trent added.

Her confidence comes from personal experience; Trent is one of the driving forces Next Generation Trucking Associationa non-profit education accelerator to promote CDL programs for drivers and diesel technicians in high schools and community and technical colleges throughout the United States.

Next Gen first planted its roots at Paterson High School in Paterson, California, where Next Gen’s other founder, Dave Dane, is the high school’s truck driving coordinator and instructor.

The program opens the door for high school students interested in trucking to take a yearlong elective that combines both classroom and truck training. Dane’s success attracted the attention of many national media, including FreightWaves and Fox News, and Trent noted that 65 high schools across the country are looking to implement similar programs. And Next Gen is already planning to create a two-year course for participating high schools.

With its mission to train young drivers, Next Gen views SDAP as the optimal next step for its students before fully embarking on their trucking careers.

“We can prepare them not only for success in their careers, but also for success on the road, because they receive additional training that will make them the safest driver possible.”

Click for more FreightWaves content from Jack Glenn.

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