In life, I like to take the less expected path. Whether trying out for—and making—the boys football team or joining my community’s firefighting explorer program, the unknown appeals to my sense of adventure. So when I noticed how excited one of my newest friends’ was to take the truck-driving course offered at Patterson High School, I had to wonder just what the course had to offer. Could trucking be the career for me?

Turns out the answer is yes.

The next school year, I had one of the coveted eight spots in the Commercial Drivers License (CDL) course created by our teacher, Dave Dein, a trucker-turned-educator who founded the only non-vocational high school program in the country. No surprise to me at the time, I was the only female in the class. Trucking has a reputation of being a “man’s industry” but I was just as excited as the guys when it came to getting a crack at the simulator, absorbing the industry updates, and getting familiar with big rigs.

Turns out, I’m a natural.

The 180 classroom hours plus 25 hours with the simulator during a “Zero Period” were engaging, but the course also provided opportunities beyond the book, cab or engine of a truck. We were fortunate enough to have a regular rotation of industry partners (read: potential employers) who talked to us about everything from their professional experience to industry trends. Most people think to be a success in your chosen field you need to focus on book smarts, but really, to do anything right, especially sit behind the wheel of a long haul truck and take to the road for hours and hours, you need healthy doses of courage, professionalism, confidence and most importantly- passion.

I discovered that most of that seemed to come naturally.

After graduating from high school and the trucking course, the industry partners we had met were supportive, hiring some of my classmates for seasonal work. While needing experience is expected in any professional setting, unfair restrictions placed on the trucking industry make it even harder for qualified candidates who want to drive long haul to get hired. An outdated federal regulation requires CDL holders to be 21 in order to drive interstate, meaning the only job prospects for 18-year old credentialed drivers like me are dedicated or seasonal routes intrastate.

For some drivers, those are fine options. But I think I’ve found my future is in long haul trucking. I want to see the country. I want to spend my days on the road, snapping pictures along the way to document my experience. In the process, I want to change the stereotype of the long haul truck driver and open the road to a new generation—and gender—of committed and passionate drivers. But I can’t change the face of trucking if my age hamstrings my job prospects.

The DRIVE Safe Act (H.R.1374, S.569) would undo this ageist restriction. The authors of the DRIVE Safe Act recognize 18-20-year old CDL holders who pass a rigorous program like the one at Patterson High School are qualified to take the wheel. Furthermore, the measure puts an emphasis on safety, and no one planning a career on the road wants anything less than the highest standards.

I had no idea the Patterson High School truck driving course would spark a lifelong dream, but it has. Our graduates don’t just memorize the text. We learn it, we understand it, and we strive to live it. And this program doesn’t create “drivers”. We work hard all year to create professional drivers- 18-year-olds who are ready to climb into a truck and truly understand the magnitude of responsibility that comes with operating a commercial motor vehicle—a “semi-truck”. Passage of the DRIVE Safe Act would ensure I, and many other young professional drivers like myself, don’t need to find a stopgap dream to bide the time until we turn 21.

Leilani Barradas is a graduate of Patterson High School’s truck driving program— one of the first high school trucking programs in the country-- and is working on the final steps to obtain her Commercial Driver’s License.

Leilani Barradas is a graduate of Patterson High School’s truck driving program— one of the first high school trucking programs in the country-- and is working on the final steps to obtain her Commercial Driver’s License.

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