Congress is considering legislation that would let 18-year-olds drive commercial trucks on interstate routes as lawmakers look for ways to help ease a nationwide shortage that could threaten cargo shipments at the Port of Charleston and other seaports.
The measure — called the Drive Safe Act — has the backing of the South Carolina Trucking Association, which has advocated for a pilot program that would let 18- to 21-year-olds with commercial licenses drive routes between the Carolinas and Georgia. That age group is already allowed to drive commercial routes within state lines.
"Driving from one end of the state to another should be no greater challenge than crossing the line into metro Charlotte or Savannah, or into rural areas," said Rick Todd, the associations' president.
The legislation, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Duncan Hunter of California, is being studied by a House committee. While most states issue commercial licenses to drivers 18 and older, they are restricted from interstate travel until they reach 21.
The program would require those in the 18-to-21 age group to complete at least 400 hours of on-duty time with at least 240 hours of driving time with an experienced driver in the cab with them. Trucks used in the training program must be equipped with safety equipment such as active braking collision mitigation systems, video cameras and a speed governor set at 65 mph or below.
"This is a common sense approach that creates job opportunities for younger workers and provides a vital resource to America’s trucking industry that is critical in supporting our growing domestic economy,” Duncan, a Republican, said in a statement.
The American Trucking Association says the nation currently has a shortage of 50,000 commercial drivers, with economic growth and the boom in e-commerce expected to intensify the shortage to at least 174,000 by 2026. Part of the shortage is due to an aging workforce. A South Carolina legislative study committee shows less than a half-percent of commercial license holders are between the ages of 18 and 21 while 45 percent are over 52 years old.
"It's a very well-crafted bill that includes a lot of safety measures," said Pat Barber, a board member with the Maritime Association of South Carolina and former CEO of Charleston trucking firm Superior Transportation. Barber said insurance companies — typically resistant to younger drivers — are getting on board with the measure, adding "they are starting to see that we're going to have a real problem" if there's a trucker shortage.
The proposal also has critics within the industry, with the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association calling reports of a driver shortage "largely myth." The association points to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration statistics showing there are 449,000 new entry-level commercial license holders and 98,000 reinstatements evach year.
"This has been tried before and no one with any common sense thought it was a good idea,” said Todd Spencer, the group's acting president. “Nothing has changed since that time and no disruptions have ever taken place due to any perceived shortage of drivers. These latest efforts are just more ways to keep driver churn going and keep wages as low as possible."
However, Chris Spear, CEO of the American Trucking Association, said the legislation "will open enormous opportunities for the 18- to 21-year-old population," with good-paying jobs that don't require a four-year college degree.
"Moreover, this bill would strengthen training programs beyond current requirements to ensure safety and that drivers are best prepared," Spear said.