Why not let youth under 21 drive interstate?

Most of us in trucking recognize that the Truckload Carriers Assn. (TCA) is one advocacy group bound and determined to find ways to alleviate the driver-shortage crunch that continues to afflict over-the-road fleets.

TCA's latest effort is a creative attempt to put more drivers in truck seats that is promising enough to deserve the support of the entire trucking industry.

The group is simply not willing to bow to that terribly old but often true cliche that youth is wasted on the young. Instead, says TCA's leaders, there's no time like now to put at least some of the young to work behind the steering wheels of longhaul trucks.

What TCA has done is file a petition asking the federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to allow it to conduct a pilot project on younger drivers operating in interstate commerce after extensive schooling and on-the-job training. "Ironically," points out TCA president Lana Batts, 18-year-olds are already driving 18-wheelers in all but two states - New Jersey and Nevada - on an intrastate basis."

According to TCA, the petition is designed to test whether or not the driver pool can be expanded safely by lowering the federal age limit.

The way the rules work now, the trucking industry doesn't have much luck attracting 18-year-old high school graduates who'd like to become truck drivers. Rather, these potential hires must wait another three years to start out on the road to longhaul trucking. And very often as they wait, they find or fall into another profession in a different field.

The petition details a yearlong, apprenticeship-type program that would be put into action by a consortium of organizations and businesses pledged to cooperate in attracting, training, and retaining qualified younger drivers. The consortium consists of TCA, the Professional Truck Driver Institute (PTDI), the ATA Foundation, state trucking associations, schools, and carriers.

As TCA sees it, the pilot program will be based on the concept that the "right" student with the "right" training hired by the "right" employer will be a safe operator who will stay with the carrier beyond their training years.

The "right" student will be one who has shown an understanding that a driver's license is a privilege, not a right, by having no chargeable accidents, no serious speeding tickets, and no convictions for careless or reckless driving or DUI.

The "right" training will come from a driving school that is PTDI-certified, Title IV-accredited, and willing to expand its program to almost six months. The longer course would be certified by PTDI and would run at least 22 weeks, including 14 weeks in the classroom and 8 weeks of behind-the-wheel instruction.

The "right" employer will be a company with a "satisfactory" safety rating and a better-than-average accident rate. The company would also have to offer an 8-week PTDI-certified "driver finishing" program, during which the student would receive a weekly (not paid by the mile!) salary. Once the carrier and the school agree, the student would graduate into an 18-week team operation.

Only after concluding 48 weeks of training and on-the-job experience would the student be declared "solo ready." At that point, the fully licensed CDL holder could switch to another company - but only one that is also in the pilot program.

The petition grew out of extensive work completed by the association's Driver Recruitment and Retention Panel, which is chaired by Ronnie Dowdy of Batesville, Ark.-based Ronnie Dowdy Trucking.