A teenager behind the wheel of a 35,000-pound 18-wheeler may not sound appealing to most drivers.
"Not, not a big rig," says Houston driver Kiana Archer. "I have a 17-year-old that just started driving, and there are still some quirks to work out."
But that's the goal of a new nationwide pilot program which was first proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Companies will be able to hire cross-country truck drivers between the ages of 18 and 21.
Eighteen-year-olds are already allowed to drive 18-wheelers within 49 states, including Texas, but they have to turn 21 to cross state lines.
"What we see basically is you can drive all the way from Houston to El Paso but not cross into Las Cruces," says John Esparza, President & CEO of the Texas Trucking Association.
In 2019, Esparza wrote a Houston Chronicle op-ed encouraging the dismissal of the ban on 18-year-old truckers crossing state lines. He believes the program will help fill a driver shortage that's been increasing for more than a decade and is now taking partial blame for supply chain problems.
"Veterans coming over from a tour of duty lots of times make great candidates for drivers because they've already driven, and they come back and say, ‘well, I can't get my license until I'm 21. What am I going to do for a year [or] two years?"
Under the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program, 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds would have to undergo safety screenings and complete a probationary period with enrollment maxing out at 3,000 apprentices on the roads at a time.
"It has less to do with age than it has to do with the acumen of the person driving," adds Esparza.
"Do they have enough experience" It's going to be up to the company to decide at what point they can allow that driver, at whatever age to be independent enough to take on loads by themselves."
Statistically, young drivers have higher rates of crashes, and higher insurance costs could keep some companies from getting on board.
"Insurance companies [are] going to look at your insurance policies and effectively say, ‘well if you're trying to keep your insurance rates rising, you may only get to have a couple of those drivers of the 100 drivers in your driving pool," says Esparza.
The three-year program will need a final stamp of approval by the White House Office of Management and Budget, but some Texas drivers are already giving it the green light.
"It's a good opportunity across the board," says Ray Guajardo. "It's an industry that continues to grow, and it's not going to go anywhere. It keeps the heartbeat of the United States."