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Trucker shortage spurs push for dropping age to drive

Inside a St. Louis Community College at Forest Park classroom, about a dozen aspiring truck drivers took notes on speed and stopping distances and the importance of checking all six mirrors.

“We’re big and we’re what?” Vincent Lang, the class instructor, asked on a recent day.

“Slow,” the class responded together.

You’re all starting out on your driving career, Lang told them, stressing that future employers will look carefully at their driving records.

“We don’t want to lose our meal ticket,” he said. “That’s our bread. That’s our butter.”

There’s a move afoot to let younger people get that meal ticket, although it’s meeting resistance.

Current federal law requires drivers be at least 21 to drive commercial trucks across state lines. But a bill being considered by Congress would drop that age to 18 for a six-year trial period by allowing contiguous states to join in compacts to lower the age for interstate trips.

It has the support of many in the trucking industry, which is dealing with a driver shortage.

The American Trucking Associations estimates the current shortage of drivers is about 40,000. It says trucking companies will need to recruit almost 100,000 new drivers a year over the next decade to keep up with the nation’s freight needs due to retirements and drivers leaving the industry.

“If you open up newspapers across the state, you’ll see want ads for drivers all over the place,” said Tom Crawford, president and chief executive of the Missouri Trucking Association.

His group supports dropping the age, which Crawford said is a logical move — as the law stands now, an 18-year-old trucker from St. Louis can drive roughly 250 miles to Kansas City, but not a few miles into Illinois.

“You start to scratch your head and say that doesn’t make sense,” Crawford said.

Al Hursey, president of the Giltner-St. Louis trucking firm, agrees.

“When you can’t get them until they’re 21, they’re gone,” he said. “They’re in another industry.”

The change is staunchly opposed by the nonprofit lobbying group Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, which cites data showing that drivers ages 19 and 20 who hold licenses to drive commercial vehicles are roughly six times more likely to be involved in police-reported injury and fatality crashes per 100 million miles traveled, compared to all other truck drivers 21 and older.

“We know they have a high crash rate,” said Jackie Gillan, the group’s president. “Now we’re going to say, ‘Everything’s fine, you can have the keys to a truck?’”

She said teens shouldn’t even be driving within states, and that if the bill passes, other drivers become guinea pigs for the pilot program.

And in the trucking class, the opinions differed as well.

“It’s smarter to keep the age at 21,” said Lizzy Dulle, 22, who wants to be an over-the-road trucker. She said the brain undergoes many changes during those three years but also acknowledged the wait to drive could mean high-school graduates could pursue a different career.

Her classmate, Shawn Kelly, said people can start driving box trucks before crossing state lines.

“Three years isn’t going to ruin your life not driving,” said Kelly, 24, who said 18-year-olds lack the maturity needed to make quick decisions and to realize how tired they are.

It was an older classmate who took a different view.

“If a kid can go through the military and lose his life, he should be able to drive to get the things he needs,” said Abbdur Rahiim Al-Matiin, 58. He said he joined the Army at 18.

Leo Rines, the program manager for the five-week trucking course at St. Louis Community College that’s funded by a Department of Labor grant, worries that many 18-year-olds aren’t as cautious as they should be, and that giving them control of an 80,000-pound truck could be too risky. He’s also a strong advocate for training programs such as his, which teach safety and prepare students to take their commercial driver’s license tests.

Students practice driving in a high-tech simulator, which even records their facial expressions. They also hone their skills on actual tractor-trailers on a campus parking lot.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration in 2003 rejected a proposal by the Truckload Carriers Association seeking to allow 18-year-olds to drive commercial vehicles in interstate commerce.

The agency said it didn’t have enough information to decide whether the safety measures in the program were “designed to achieve a level of safety equivalent to, or greater than, the level of safety provided by complying with the minimum 21-year age requirement.”

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