For the last seven years, Daphne and Steve Izer of Lisbon Falls have been fighting to rid the highways of the hazardous trucking practices that claimed the life of their 16-year-old son.
Jeff Izer, his girlfriend and two of their friends were killed on the Maine Turnpike in 1994 when a Pennsylvania trucker apparently dozed off at the wheel and plowed his 80,000-pound rig into Jeff’s disabled Ford Escort parked in the breakdown lane. Shortly after, the Izers formed Parents Against Tired Truckers, a safety advocacy group, now with affiliates in 25 states, whose mission was to expose the problem of truck-driver fatigue as a silent killer endemic to the professional freight-hauling industry.
These days, as the organization battles the most recent risky trucking proposal to come down the pike, they might just as easily call themselves Parents Against Teen Truckers.
The U.S. Department of Transportation, at the urging of a long-haul trucking industry desperate for drivers to fill jobs, is considering whether to approve a three-year pilot program that would lower the minimum age for interstate truckers from 21 to 18 years of age and provide extensive training for young recruits. Highway-safety advocates across the country, including the American Automobile Association, have criticized the proposal as both dangerous and foolhardy. They cite studies from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and other watchdog groups showing that drivers from16 to 21 years of age have an accident rate three times greater than the older driving population, and a fatal injury rate four times as high.
“To put a driver that young on the road, we have some problems because of their maturity level and their lack of driving experience,” Mantill Williams, a AAA spokesman, recently told The Associated Press.
The thought of 18-year-olds, who may have received their driving licenses only a year or two earlier, at the wheel of big rigs for many hours at a stretch over long distances is enough to convince Daphne Izer that the concept is nothing less than disastrous.
“We were dumbfounded when we first heard about it last fall,” said Izer, whose group expressed strong opposition to the plan during the DOT’s public-comment period, which ended Monday.
Izer insists there would be no need for such risky methods of recruiting new drivers if the trucking industry were simply to change the way the majority of long-haul drivers are paid for their work.
“If the compensation system was changed, there wouldn’t be any proposals like this,” Izer said. “There are plenty of more mature, qualified drivers out there, but many of them are not willing to work because of all the hours they are forced to work for free.”
According to transportation industry studies, Izer said, the average long-haul truck driver spends between 33 and 40 hours each week waiting for cargo to be loaded or unloaded.
“They’re not getting paid for this,” she said, “so many of the veteran drivers get out of the business. If all drivers were paid by the hour rather than by the mile – which puts a lot of pressure on the drivers to push the limits – there would be enough drivers without having to resort to inexperienced 18-year-olds.”
Izer worries, too, that the teen drivers might be less inclined than their older counterparts to question employers who pressure them to move freight ever faster, regardless of fatigue.
“They’ll be subjected to the abuse of the industry,” she said, “and will probably do anything they’re asked to do to keep their jobs. And even if they’re monitored during the program, there won’t be enough enforcement to monitor them later. It’s just a backward proposal, and a real threat to highway safety, and we’re hoping to see it come to a screeching halt.”