INDIANAPOLIS — Amid a national truck driver shortage, a new U.S. program will open up cross country trucking to younger drivers. The Safe Driver Apprenticeship Pilot Program will allow 18-to-21-year-old drivers to drive semi trucks across state lines as long as they have a more experienced driver in the cab with them and the truck meets certain safety standards.

The program will only accept drivers without driving-while-impaired violations or traffic tickets for causing a crash. These young drivers can be out of the apprenticeship program and driving alone, around the country, within months. “It’s much needed and will be helpful to our industry,” said Gary Langston, the President and CEO of the Indiana Motor Truck Association.

Right now, an 18-year-old truck driver in Indiana can drive from Evansville to Fort Wayne, but cannot cross state lines. You have to be 21-years-old to do that. Langston said the new program will help fill a driver shortage.

“Now we’re up to maybe 80,000 drivers short across the country, so it will provide job opportunities that didn’t exist before,” Langston said. “Good jobs, good paying jobs, that people coming out of high school never had the opportunity for.”

Safety advocates on the other hand argue this will lead to more danger on interstate roads. “The research shows 18-and-19-year-old drivers have some of the higher crash rates out there,” said Peter Kurdock, the General Counsel for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. But Langston said this apprenticeship program will make these young driver some of the best on the road.

There will be two probationary periods of 120-hours and 280-hours. Throughout that time, an experienced driver will need to be in the passenger seat. An experienced driver has to be at least 26-years-old with five years of experience driving. The driver must also have two years without any crashes or tickets.

Langston said these requirements will weed out any younger drivers who are not good enough to handle the job. “If this job isn’t right for them, they won’t end up making it all the way through the program,” he said.

Kurdock said the combined 400 hours of training is not nearly enough time to prepare these drivers. “They can get through that probationary period in a matter of weeks, so we’re not talking about a significant amount of time that they’re going to receive that training,” Kurdock said. But, Langston argues this is a rigorous training program and should last at least a few months depending on the student.

The trainees will also be required to ride in trucks with an electronic braking crash mitigation system, a forward facing video camera, and their speeds must be limited to 65 mph. Once the trainee graduates from the probationary period, the truck they drive will not be required to have these safety measures. Kurdock said this is dangerous. “You’re compounding already a very dangerous situation by training this individual on a truck that has all of the safety technologies in there and other limitations in there and then unleashing them on the public roads with none of them in place,” Kurdock said.

Langston said this is possible, but more and more carriers are getting new safety technology like what these apprentices will be required to drive with. Throughout the program, carriers will also have to report regularly on the progress of the driver. Langston said things like accidents and failed drug test have to be reported within 24 hours.

The program will take on no more than 3,000 apprentices at any given time. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration will reach out to carriers with excellent safety records to take part in the program. Langston expects the program to start soon.