Teenagers might get to drive big rigs—but should they want to?

July 20, 2015, 8:17 PM UTC
Red truck on the road at sunset
Photograph by Jetta Productions/Getty Images

Dave MacMillan thinks teenagers can make good truck drivers, and he should know—he hauled his first commercial load, in Canada, when he was just 16 years old. “I worked part time and on the weekends moving freight. Then as soon as I got out of high school, I started driving full time.”

He went on to a 40-year career as a driver, and founded his own small trucking company with his wife, Catherine. They’ve since sold it and retired.

“Certainly, when you’re that age, you’re a little bit inexperienced,” says MacMillan. “But it’s simply a matter of being extra careful.” He claims he never had a single wreck.

Though the U.S. minimum age for interstate truck drivers is 21, teenagers wishing to follow in MacMillan’s footsteps might soon get the chance. Congress continues to scramble for a highway funding solution ahead of a July 31st deadline, and one proposal on the table is the Developing a Reliable and Innovative Vision for the Economy, or DRIVE, Act. The bill, introduced by Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla.), would not only fund highways, but allow the formation of interstate compacts to allow commercial truck drivers as young as 18.

The provision was introduced by Senator Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who cites as her primary motivation conflicts between state and federal law—many states allow 18-year-olds to drive commercially within their borders.

“It does not make sense that the same driver can drive 500 miles from San Francisco to San Diego, but cannot simply cross a bridge from Omaha to Council Bluffs, Iowa,” Fischer wrote in a statement.

Highway safety advocates are coming out against the provision, citing Transportation Department statistics that show drivers ages 18-20 are involved in 66 percent more fatal crashes than those above 21—MacMillan’s spotless record notwithstanding.

The trucking industry supports the move, in part as a solution to what groups like the American Trucking Association characterize an ongoing labor shortage.

Bob Costello, chief economist for the ATA, points out that rather than waiting to turn 21, many of the young men who would take up trucking just out of high school enter careers in construction, or other industries without college requirements.

“We’re missing a lot of people,” says Costello. “If you go to a trucking training school today, you’ll see people in their early thirties.”

Despite the fruitful career trucking gave him, MacMillan is conflicted about allowing younger drivers. Not, primarily, because of safety concerns—but because he’s not sure he’d encourage anyone to enter the industry.

“When I got into it, you could make a living to be in the upper middle class. Gradually that’s dwindled away . . . it’s become a subsistence living. It’s an incredibly hard life for not very much money.”

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median annual wage of $39,520 for all truck drivers. But that number doesn’t reflect the severity of the challenges faced by some truckers, particularly the many owner-operators and independent contractors who find themselves responsible for mounting expenses.

Asked if he thinks a young trucker today could replicate his path from driver to owner to secure retirement, MacMillan’s answer is an emphatic no.

“It’s not worth it anymore,” he sighs.

The DRIVE Act is currently awaiting a vote in the Senate.

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