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Lawmakers and trucking companies are pondering just who should be driving the massive truck in the next traffic lane over from you. Legislation in Congress would lower the legal minimum age of truck drivers, as NPR's Chris Arnold reports.
CHRIS ARNOLD, BYLINE: Tractor trailers have 18 wheels. But under current federal law, you can't be 18 years old and drive one across state lines. You need to be 21. The highway bill working its way through the Senate though would change that.
JACKIE GILLAN: They want to allow 18- and 19- and 20-year-olds to drive big trucks. This is a terrible idea, and it will result in more crashes, more deaths and more injuries.
ARNOLD: Jackie Gillan is the president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. She says 18-year-olds are - well, 18. And they're more likely than older drivers to crash cars or motorcycles or trucks or vehicles of all kinds. So she says we shouldn't let them be interstate truckers.
GILLAN: Drivers between the ages of 18 to 20 have four to six times higher rates of fatal crashes.
ARNOLD: And actually, even some trucking companies don't like the idea.
ERIC PENNUCCI: We send four to five refrigerator trucks to New York and New Jersey every day.
ARNOLD: Up near Boston's Logan Airport, Eric Pennucci is walking along the loading dock at Horizon trucking. Big tractor trailers are picking up and dropping off everything from Italian shoes to...
PENNUCCI: Live lobster.
(SOUNDBITE OF TRACTOR TRAILER)
PENNUCCI: This cheese has just come in from Portugal. It was on a flight this morning. We picked it up in the reefer (ph) truck.
ARNOLD: That's not what you might be thinking. It's a refrigerated truck. And Pennucci says all of his customers are in a hurry to get this stuff.
PENNUCCI: People in New Hampshire - I need my candles. The world will end if I don't have my candles, you know, automotive lights.
ARNOLD: And actually, Pennucci says, there's a lot of stress in the trucking business. Traffic makes you late, and he says truck drivers need to be experienced, calm under pressure and make good decisions. So he, too, does not like the idea of 18-year-olds behind the wheel.
PENNUCCI: For us, we just wouldn't do it. You know, it's just - and safety means a lot. I'm OK with having to wait until you're 21 to drive a tractor trailer.
ARNOLD: But some trucking companies don't want to wait. Dave Osiecki is the head lobbyist for the American Trucking Associations in Washington.
DAVE OSIECKI: One of the reasons that ATA supports this idea is because we have today in every state in the United States - at least in the lower 48 - we have 18-, 19- and 20-year-old truck drivers operating in the state.
ARNOLD: Osiecki explains under state law, 18-year-olds can already drive trucks. Federal law just bans them from driving across state lines into neighboring states. But if the logic to that is that these younger drivers shouldn't be hauling long distances, Osiecki says that logic doesn't hold up.
OSIECKI: A driver 18-, 19- or 20-year-old today can operate a large truck from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh - over 300 miles in intrastate commerce wholly within the state of Pennsylvania - but he can't go three miles across the bridge from Philadelphia into Camden, N.J. That doesn't make a lot of sense.
ARNOLD: So Osiecki says the Senate version of the highway bill would allow neighboring states to take part in six-year pilot programs. Drivers under 21 could drive 100 miles into neighboring states, but that would be the new limit. They still couldn't drive, say, from New York to California.
OSIECKI: Those people who want to paint this as a completely radical idea and just opening the barn doors to these young horses to run, that's just inappropriate and unfair.
ARNOLD: Still, safety advocates say this would expand the use of teenage truck drivers who are more likely to have accidents. And they worry the 100-mile limitation could be removed down the road. In any case, Congress will pick the issue back up when lawmakers return from the summer recess. Chris Arnold, NPR News, Washington.