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Long hauling at 18? Trucker shortage spurs proposal to let teens drive across U.S.

Should teens be allowed to operate big rigs crossing the country?

They train truckers at the Apex CDL Institute in Kansas City, Kan. A federal proposal to put teens at the wheel of big rigs crossing the nation would boost enrollment, but is it safe?
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They train truckers at the Apex CDL Institute in Kansas City, Kan. A federal proposal to put teens at the wheel of big rigs crossing the nation would boost enrollment, but is it safe?

They train truckers at Apex CDL Institute in Kansas City, Kan. So, yes, federal proposals to put teens at the wheel of big rigs crossing the nation would likely boost enrollment.

But institute director Jeffrey Steinberg thinks most 18-year-olds would make bad long-haulers.

“Sure, I’d make money” should the eligible age to cross state lines be lowered, Steinberg said. “But is it going to create more problems than it would solve? In my opinion, yes. I don’t think it’s safe.”

Washington continues to press the issue. A U.S. House bill rolled out last spring was followed in August by a Senate version — co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican — both proposing that under-21 holders of commercial drivers licenses be allowed to take their cargo from one state to another.

A nationwide shortage of truckers has loomed for more than a decade. In recent years it’s only worsened as package delivery has surged and baby boomers retire, creating empty cabs that 20-something drivers are hardly scrambling to fill.

Meanwhile, a thriving economy since 2017 has increased by 8 percent the tonnage of items needing to be shipped.

Would more young haulers line up if they got an interstate commercial driver’s license, or CDL, as soon as they’re out of high school? Federal law for now requires truckers to wait until age 21 to get a CDL permitting them to steer big rigs across large swaths of the nation.

Instructor Steinberg is not alone in his objection to dropping that minimum age to 18.

The 160,000-member Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association, headquartered in Grain Valley at Interstate 70, has joined more than a dozen traffic safety groups in writing their protests to a congressional committee poised to hear the idea.

“Younger drivers both lack overall experience and are less safe behind the wheel than their older counterparts,” their April 17 letter said. “In fact, CMV (commercial motor vehicle) drivers under the age of 19 are four times more likely to be involved in fatal crashes.”

Republican-led proposals before the U.S. Committee On Transportation and Infrastructure would uniquely affect Kansas City, a central trucking hub, as well as other communities straddling state borders.

Here’s why: Both Kansas and Missouri allow 18-year-olds to obtain CDLs, placing them in the rigs of 18-wheelers, but that generally means “intrastate” deliveries only.

So around the metro Kansas licensees under 21 need to head west; young Missouri haulers need to go east. And they need to stay in those states while trucking; they’re not allowed to rumble around the country.

U.S. House bill 5358 and Senate bill 3352 would allow for that. And in a 24/7 marketplace for Amazon, eBay and Fed Ex, some industry analysts say that relaxing interstate restrictions is long overdue.

“What isn’t interstate commerce these days?” asked Satish Jindel of shipping logistics adviser SJ Consulting Group, Inc.

“Anyone who makes a distinction between interstate and intrastate trucking is stuck in the past,” he said. “Whether the minimum age is 18 or 21, the federal government needs to be consistent with the state CDL laws.”

He continued: “If an 18-year-old can vote, be given a semi-automatic assault weapon or sent to war in another country to die, why not be trusted to handle themselves on the road ... if properly trained?”

The federal proposals do set training requirements for young CDL holders. Still, experts ask, is luring teens into interstate shipping — with all its demanding schedules and road risks — really the best way to solve the shortage in truckers?

Even better question: How much do Americans care about the trucker shortage?

“All that most people know about the trucking is that they see these things run up and down the highways and goods somehow show up at the store,” said Norita Taylor of the independent drivers association.

Public concerns may rise, though, when shipping prices do. Trucking companies nationwide have hiked their contracted rates 6 to 10 percent in the past year.

The American Trucking Associations expect the costs of delivered packages — in addition to groceries, furniture and most every consumer product — to climb further as road shippers try to fill 51,000 drivers needed. That’s up from a trucker shortage of 20,000 in 2013 and 36,500 in 2016.

The ATA recently forecast a shortage of 100,000 drivers by 2021.

Expounding the problem, as of last spring, are stiffer requirements that interstate rigs be outfitted with electronics that record a trucker’s time on the road. Long-haulers of the past could fudge their paper logs, allowing them to skimp on rest, deliver quicker and make more money.

“For a lot of reasons the driver shortage is hitting a critical point,” said Peer Segelke, chief executive officer at Virginia-based Lawrence Transportation Systems Inc.

“We’ve done two driver-pay increases in the past eight months,” he said. “We may need to do another yet this year.

“Some of our competitors already have done four increases.”

With the median age of a long-hauler at 49 and shipping demands ascending, the industry aims to recruit 90,000 new drivers a year for the next decade to keep cargo moving, said ATA vice president Sean McNally.

For younger adults, interstate trucking “isn’t just a pay issue. It’s a lifestyle issue,” McNally said.

Segelke said salaries have jumped in recent years after dragging since the 1980s, when a typical hauler could make $100,000 in today’s dollars. But life on the road remains a challenge for a generation accustomed to the coziness of home.

Even so, Taylor of the owner-operators trade group said major carriers could fix the driver shortage by opening up their wallets. “They don’t want to do that, really,” she said.

“Their shareholders benefit from high turnover and low pay,” said Taylor. “Dropping the minimum age to 18 is just another way to get cheap help.”

The median annual wage in 2015 for a trucker working with a private fleet, such as a driver for Walmart, was $73,000, according to ATA.

Michael Belzer, a Wayne University associate professor critical of the industry, said competitive forces these days should be allowing long-haulers to get paid what they’re worth.

Freight companies also would be wise to increase their insurance liability, because “if the cost of an accident is in excess of the $750,000 that a firm might insure, who pays the rest? The victim.”

That could be an injured trucker or someone in another vehicle. A recent investigation by The Star revealed that more than 4,300 people were killed in accidents involving semis and other large trucks in 2016, a 28 percent increase over 2009, according to the federal government.

“Young guys will do what they do,” Belzer said. “Handing (interstate CDLs) to drivers under 21 is going to put more on the road who are at greater risk.”

With proper training — some military service, for example — people that age could safely ride a rig from coast to coast, said Steinberg of the Apex driving school in KCK. What worries him is that so many others haven’t had the life experience to rely on their wits for weeks at a time.

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“Is it going to create more problems than it would solve?” asks Jeffrey Steinberg of Apex CDL Institute of allowing teens to drive long-haul trucks. “In my opinion, yes. I don’t think it’s safe.” Tammy Ljungblad tljungblad@kcstar.com

Grabbing a U.S. road atlas from a shelf in his office, Steinberg opened to a map of Indiana. He jabbed his finger to the variety of cities that a trucker might need to hit with just one load: Muncie to Gary to Indianapolis, then on to Kentucky or Pennsylvania.

On time, and rest, too.

“You’re gone that long and you’ve got to know how to manage yourself,” he said. “I don’t think most 18-year-olds have learned enough life skills yet.”

He said proposals to lower the interstate trucking age arise occasionally at the behest of some giant carriers, not all, that strive to keep their payroll costs to a minimum and deliveries to a maximum by “treating their drivers like garbage.”

And that’s the mentality, Steinberg said, behind trucker shortages getting worse.

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