Teen long-haul truckers: Pilot program would allow 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to cross state lines

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Teenage drivers, allowed to drive tractor trailers across state lines.

Action News Jax Investigates a new federal proposal that would allow 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds to drive big rigs.

Action News Jax’s Letisha Bereola took a look at why safety advocates say the plan could make local highways more deadly.

On October 14, 1993, Jasen Swift, 23, a corporal in the United States Marine Corps, was riding with a fellow service-member through the Nevada desert on their way back to base.

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“By the time they came up on it, it was too late,” said Russell Swift, co-chair of Parents Against Tired Truckers (PATT).

In the predawn darkness, they never saw the tractor trailer.

”They were both killed immediately,” Swift said.

To Russell Swift, 27 years has done little to dull the pain of his son’s sudden passing.

”When it happened, you wonder why, how did it happen, why did it happen, did it happen to my son?” Russell Swift said.

The why is still hard to explain. The semi driver was just 17 years old.

”He was 17 years old. He turned 18 years old after the crash,” Russell Swift said.

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He wasn’t supposed to be behind the wheel.

”He was afraid to ask his boss what to do next, and he screwed up, and it got my son and his friend killed,” Swift said.

The semi was stuck across the highway after the teen made an illegal U-turn.

”A short time after that, we attended a meeting of Parents Against Tired Truckers and we became involved,” Swift said.

Groups like PATT advocate for better safety measures, preventive technology and stronger regulation of the trucking industry.

Right now, 49 states allow commercial drivers, aged 18 to 20, to operate.

A federal proposal for a pilot program would allow those young drivers to cross state lines -- effectively becoming long-haul truckers.

”They’ll die on the highway and they’ll take more of us with them,” Swift said.

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Data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration show younger drivers are more likely to be involved in crashes.

In 2018, drivers under 21 were involved in 12% of crashes, even though they make up just 5.3% of all licensed drivers.

And in Florida and Georgia, young drivers were involved in 13% of all deadly crashes that year – 4,637 deaths.

”We believe there is a safe enough way to do it,” said Bill Sullivan of the American Trucking Associations.

The American Trucking Associations supports the young-driver pilot program.

He said the industry is facing challenges hiring the next generation of long-haul truck drivers – estimating a 60,000-driver shortage.

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”We came into the pandemic with a need to put more men and women in the seats, uh, behind the wheel of trucks,” Sullivan said.

And in 2020, those drivers were more essential than ever. Sullivan said this program creates careers, keeps America running, and can be done safely by passing a corresponding apprenticeship law called the Safe Driving Act.

”So we’re talking about 400 hours of supervised training, on top of that, of mentorship, on top of that with four safety technologies as a requirement,” Sullivan said.

As for Swift, his group wants the feds to stop young truck drivers from crossing state lines.

”We’re going to be the guinea pigs on the highway to see if the system works. Your family and my family are gonna be out there with them to see if he can do the job, right. We’re, he’s, we’re the ones being tested. Can we get out of his way before he kills us?” Swift said.

The pilot program wouldn’t allow young drivers to haul hazardous materials.

Click here to read more about the program and learn how you can submit your opinion to the federal government for consideration.