18-Year-Olds and 18-Wheelers

The two just don't mix.

Yet the US Department of Transportation is moving to lower the minimum age of truck drivers from 21 to 18 as one way to alleviate a shortage of big-rig drivers.

Under a pilot program being reviewed by DOT - and proposed by the Truckload Carriers Association - up to 1,000 18- to 20-year-olds would be trained for 11 months (four times the usual amount) and then licensed as long-haul drivers.

But the prospect of youngsters at the wheel of these behemoths simply ignores a disturbing fact from the auto-insurance industry: Teenagers, as a group, are the highest-risk drivers. Many of them lack judgment in driving cars, let alone 18-wheelers.

Even older drivers have problems. Studies show that under-30 truckers are more likely to get into accidents, be fined for violations, and break government rules on rest time. Overall, tractor-trailer rigs were involved in accidents resulting in more than 5,000 deaths in 1999, many of them caused by sleepy drivers.

The problem is that the industry doesn't want to pay higher wages to attract more-experienced drivers. So its lobbyists have persuaded the government to consider this test of younger drivers. (Trucking associations and companies are generous campaign donors, giving more than $5 million to various candidates in the 2000 election cycle and 81 percent of that to the GOP, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.)

Yet trucking companies have been doing a booming business, and can afford to value their drivers more.

Between 1990 and 1998, the amount of freight carried by trucks jumped from 4.8 billion tons to 6.7 billion tons. That helped put some 1 million more trucks on the road.

The DOT's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration should steer clear of this unwise experiment.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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