You’ve probably seen the headlines: “U.S. Allows Teens to Drive Semi-Trucks” or some variation of that phrase has been circulating over the past month among news outlets and social media platforms. It is a phrase that is misleading because 18- to 20-year-olds are currently already permitted to drive semi-trucks in Florida and 48 other states; they just can’t drive across state lines or haul interstate commerce.
But a new federal program, the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot (SDAP) Program, would change that by allowing a limited number of 18- to 20-year-old drivers to operate commercial motor vehicles in interstate commerce, permitting them to drive between states. The purpose of the program is to help address the truck driver shortage and ongoing supply chain crisis – a crisis impacting us all every day with inflation, empty store shelves, and delayed delivery times.
There are misconceptions that the SDAP Program will make highways less safe – but it actually raises the bar for training standards and safety technology far above current standards for under-21 CDL holders. A maximum of 3,000 apprenticeship drivers at a time will be able to participate in the three-year program. Apprenticeship drivers will be required to initially complete two probationary periods – one for 120 hours and the other for 280 hours. During that time, drivers may transport goods across state lines only under the supervision of an experienced driver in the passenger seat – one who is at least 26 years old, with a minimum of five years of interstate experience. Apprentices will also be required to have specific vehicle safety technologies installed on their trucks.
Motor carriers participating in the SDAP Program must submit monthly data on an apprentice’s driver activity and notify the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) within 24 hours of any injury or fatal crash involving an apprentice, as well as any alcohol-related citation received by an apprentice in any vehicle. If an apprentice is disqualified for a major offense, serious traffic violations, railroad-highway grade crossing violation, or violation of an out-of-service order, he or she will be removed from the program.
With the U.S. currently facing a shortage of 80,000 truck drivers, we need pro-safety, common sense solutions like the SDAP Program, which will have a long-term impact on growing the trucking workforce. Historically, the federal ban on interstate commerce for under-21 drivers has been a major obstacle to recruitment, eliminating job opportunities for young drivers between the ages of 18 to 20 – a critical time when many are deciding on a career path. The SDAP Program will open doors for young women and men seeking a high-paying profession without going into debt for a four-year degree.
It will also open up opportunities for 18- to 20-year-old drivers to transport cargo from Florida ports, which is considered interstate commerce – even if the port is located in the same state (or city) as the final location. This is a game-changer in Florida, which needs about 15 percent of the nation’s professional drivers due to geography, ports, and consumption.
Currently, federal law allows 18-year-olds to fly a commercial aircraft. But prior to the SDAP Program, an 18-year-old could not drive a tractor-trailer across state lines or transport cargo from Florida ports. Florida Trucking Association looks forward to assisting FMCSA in supporting this pilot program, which will carve a path for training the safest, most responsible 18- to 20-year-old drivers to more fully participate in our industry.
Alix Miller is president and CEO of Florida Trucking Association.