Spending bill retools under-21 pilot rules

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The U.S. House and Senate last week passed the fiscal year 2024 transportation funding bill, which included a provision to help get the languishing Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot (SDAP) Program on track.

SDAP, a three-year program will help individuals aged 18 to 20 explore interstate trucking careers, has been plagued by low participation since its 2022 launch. Currently, only 29 fleets are registered to participate (the Biden administration expected upwards of 1,000). The apprenticeship program was capped at 3,000 participating drivers at any one time but, to date, only three dozen have enrolled. 

[Related: FMCSA's under-21 driver pilot program opens: Here's how it works]

“The Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program was intended to bolster new career pathways into interstate trucking while promoting safety and training standards that far exceed the bar set by states today," said American Trucking Associations President and CEO Chris Spear. "Unfortunately, burdensome and unnecessary requirements imposed by FMCSA sharply limited enrollment."

The bipartisan infrastructure law enacted in 2021 included a nationwide pilot program to create a pathway for drivers under the age of 21 to operate in interstate commerce, provided the motor carrier met a list of safety standards. Additionally, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) required participating fleets to register their apprenticeship programs with the U.S. Department of Labor and equip their trucks with inward-facing cameras, neither of which were included in the bipartisan infrastructure law that established the SDAP and layers Spear saw as burdensome to program participation. 

[Related: Here's how to get your under-21 drivers insured]

International Foodservice Distributors Association, who championed the pilot's reform alongside ATA, noted passage of the bill and removing those additional requirements will "restore the Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot program to its original intent and increase opportunities for qualified younger drivers to receive rigorous training and safely enter the foodservice distribution workforce," said Mark S. Allen, the organization's president and CEO.

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The apprenticeship program includes one probationary period of at least 120 hours of on-duty time, of which 80 hours must be driving time in a truck. This probationary period must include training in interstate, city, two-lane- rural, and evening driving; safety awareness; speed and space management; lane control; mirror scanning; right and left turns; and logging and complying with hours of service rules.

A second probationary period must include at least 280 hours of on-duty time with at least 160 hours of driving time. This period must include training in backing and maneuvering in close quarters; pre-trip inspections; fueling procedures; weighing loads, weight distribution and sliding tandems; coupling and uncoupling procedures; and trip planning, truck routes, map reading, navigation and permits.

After completion of the second probationary period the apprentice may begin operating CMVs in interstate commerce unaccompanied by an experienced driver.

Throughout the program, FMCSA will collect data regarding:

  • The ability of technologies or training provided to apprentices as part of the pilot to improve safety
  • An analysis of the safety record of participating apprentices as compared to other CMV drivers
  • The number of drivers that stopped participating in the program before completion
  • A comparison of safety records of drivers before, during and after each probationary period
  • A comparison of each participating driver’s average on-duty time, driving time, and time spent away from home terminal before, during and after each probationary period
Jason Cannon has written about trucking and transportation for more than a decade and serves as Chief Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. A Class A CDL holder, Jason is a graduate of the Porsche Sport Driving School, an honorary Duckmaster at The Peabody in Memphis, Tennessee, and a purple belt in Brazilian jiu jitsu. Reach him at [email protected].