The $305 billion highway bill announced by lawmakers on Tuesday limits an effort to lower the minimum age of truck drivers on interstate trips from 21 years of age to 18 to veterans and current military members and reservists.
The 1,300 page measure, which was unveiled days before a Friday deadline for renewing federal transportation funding, eschews a broader proposal to lower the minimum age of all interstate truck drivers in a pilot program that was approved earlier by the House and Senate.
Safety groups praised lawmakers for placing limits on the number of teenage truck drivers that will be allowed on U.S. roads.
"By restricting the three-year teen trucker pilot program to veterans and servicemen above the age of 18, Congress greatly restricted the amount of higher-risk drivers that would be allowed to drive trucks across state lines," Truck Safety Coalition Executive Director John Lannen said in a statement.
The proposal to lower the minimum age of truck drivers was included in earlier appropriations bills that were approved by the House and Senate, igniting a fight between truck companies and safety groups that revved up as lawmakers were pressing to beat the rapidly approaching Dec. 4 highway funding deadline.
Supporters argued the idea of lowering the minimum age for truckers was a modest effort to address a driver shortage that trucking companies have complained has hampered cargo movement in the U.S.
"This amendment would strike a limited pilot program that is authorizing drivers over 19 1/2 to enter into a graduated program to obtain a commercial driver's license," Rep. Sam GravesSamuel (Sam) Bruce GravesHighway bill's long and winding road House passes 0B package, hoping to sway infrastructure debate GOP lawmaker points to Colonial Pipeline as infrastructure vulnerability MORE (R-Mo.) said when the proposal was being debated on the House floor in October.
"What's interesting about the way present law is [written] is that a driver that's over the age that's being discussed here can drive all the way across the state of Missouri, for instance, but they can't drive 10 miles in the city of Kansas City because it's across state lines," Graves continued then. "It doesn't make a whole lot of sense and it actually hampers a whole lot of business out there."
Truck companies cited a shortage of truck drivers they said has reached 48,000 as they pushed for the minimum age of interstate drivers to be lowered, arguing that older truckers are retiring at a faster clip than younger replacements are coming on line.
American Trucking Association President and former Kansas Gov. Bill Graves (R) said he is "puzzled" that Congress opted to place limits on the effort to lower the mininum age for truckers, although he said he took solace in other provisions that were included in the highway bill at the behest of truck companies, such as a controversial proposal to allow drug testing for drivers via hair follicles.
"It’s good news is that Congress has created an opportunity for young veterans to transition to the trucking industry,” Graves said in a statement.
"We are, however, disappointed that qualified, young, non-military CDL holders cannot have the same opportunity because we believe it is illogical to allow these younger drivers to operate in intrastate commerce in each of the 48 contiguous states, but not let them cross state borders," he continued. "It is puzzling why Congress would dispense with language from both chambers that was very similar in many respects in favor of a provision that was so starkly different.”
Democrats argued while the provision to lower the mininum age for truckers was being debated that it is too risky to turn the wheels of big rigs over to teenage drivers.
"Ask any parent, they know young drivers do not always listen, even when an experienced one is in the front seat," Rep. John LewisJohn LewisDemocratic frustration growing over stagnating voting rights bills With extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one Obama, Dave Chappelle nominated in same Grammy category MORE (D-Ga.) said during the House highway bill debate.
Lawmakers ultimately split the difference, limiting the lower truck driver age limit to veterans and active military members.
The Truck Safety Coalition's Lannen praised lawmakers for reaching an agreement that "removed several dangerous policies, improved upon other anti-safety measures," though he added that the compromise bill "unfortunately, included some troubling provisions.
"We are extremely thankful to the members of Congress on the Conference Committee that listened to the facts and to the people," he said. "Their hard work is evidenced by the positive changes made to the final bill."
This story was updated with new information at 11:22 a.m.