A couple of summers ago, I had a dangerous run-in with a truck driver who should not have been behind the wheel of a big rig.
It happened when I was driving back to New York on Interstate 91, not far south of White River Junction, Vermont. I was in the passing lane, going past several cars that were traveling near the 65 miles per hour speed limit. I was probably doing between 70 and 75 mph myself, when the grill of an 18-wheeler took up my entire review mirror. The truck was about a foot off my rear bumper, where it stayed for several minutes as I passed the other vehicles.
I pulled into the right lane to let him go by once I was able, at which point the driver sent me a clear message by coming back into my lane when there was still about 20 feet of trailer yet to pass me. My choices were to pull onto the shoulder or let him knock me off the road. Luckily, I saw what was happening in time and safely moved over. I then exchanged looks with my wife, who, like me, could conceivably have been killed if I hadn't been paying enough attention.
We decided not to let the matter drop. I followed the truck driver - closely, but not too close - while calling out identifying characteristics to my wife, who contacted the state highway authorities. Over the course of the next 50 miles or so, the driver did his or her best to lose me. First the truck sped up to close to 85 mph, during which time I dropped back but kept it in sight. Then it slowed to about 30 to try to induce me to go past. I didn't.
My reward came around the time we went through Brattleboro. There, as we emerged from a construction zone (at which point the driver was behaving virtuously), a Vermont patrol vehicle was waiting in the median. As soon as the obnoxious semitrailer driver went past, the patrol car pulled out, turned on its flashers and pulled the 18-wheeler over for a roadside inspection.
I don't know what happened after that. I assume the driver received no sort of citation for his treatment of me, since the officer would not have seen the incident firsthand. But if the driver's logbook and other credentials were not in perfect order, I expect he or she did not have a very good afternoon.
An underage driver? I have no reason to think so. But one acting without the maturity and judgment necessary to be entrusted with a 40-ton machine? Absolutely.
Maturity doesn't always come with time, but it always takes time. Proponents of a congressional proposal to allow teenage truck drivers to operate across state lines within certain limits put a lot of people in peril when they lose sight of this.
The proposal in question is part of general highway legislation currently before the Senate, introduced by Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb. If adopted, the legislation would amend a federal law that currently prohibits drivers under 21 from operating large trucks between states, even if state laws permit the teens to drive them. According to Bloomberg, 48 states currently allow younger drivers (between 18 and 21) to hold commercial licenses for intrastate commerce. (1) And as older drivers retire, industry researchers warn of a worsening driver shortage, which allowing younger drivers to operate across state lines might help address.
The new system would introduce a graduated licensing program for commercial drivers. The American Trucking Associations has thrown its support behind this idea. "Graduated licensing is proven and effective for reducing the risk of young drivers of passenger vehicles -millions of drivers have gotten their licenses this way - and it has been a top policy priority for many organizations, including some that are attacking Senator Fischer's proposal now," ATA's executive vice president, Dave Osiecki, said in a statement. (2)
Those attacks mainly focus on safety concerns. Jackie Gillan, the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, has argued that statistics indicate young truck drivers are four to six times more likely than drivers over 21 to be involved in fatal crashes. Gillan argued that, instead of introducing graduated licensing, the Senate should consider cracking down on laws permitting drivers between 18 and 21 to operate large trucks within a state. (1)
We need good truck drivers, and a lot of teens need good jobs. Of this, I have no doubt. Allowing teenagers to drive trucks, however, does put a lot of people at risk, starting with the teenagers themselves. Anybody who lives in the Rocky Mountain West can tell you how easy it is for a semitrailer to jackknife across an interstate during a blizzard. And anybody who has seen it can tell you just how frightening it is.
Whether this proposal is the right path will depend on exactly what the proposed graduated licenses look like. Many states allow for graduated licensing for teens getting their first standard driver's license, moving from a permit (where the driver must be supervised at all times) to a provisional license, where a driver can operate alone only in certain conditions, such as during daylight hours or when driving directly to and from a job. The exact provisions vary between states, but they provide a useful guide for considering how a graduated commercial licensing program might work.
Let 18-year-olds drive big trucks, but let them do so only under the immediate personal supervision of a second, experienced driver. Maybe require that older drivers have a certification, or an endorsement of their safety record, to demonstrate the maturity necessary to supervise a younger operator this way. At first, maybe only allow such driving at certain hours of the day, or forbid it in weather conditions that would require the truck's lights or wipers.
Can a properly trained 18-year-old safely operate an 18-wheeler in broad daylight on a wide-open freeway in South Dakota? Sure. There is a lot to be said for providing that experience and bolstering the national truck fleet in the bargain.
But we don't need more immature truck drivers on our highways. It only takes one fit of pique or one lapse in attention to put lives at risk.