Knights of the Highway

American truck drivers were once regarded as the “knights of the highway.” Travelers counted on truckers to stop and help distressed motorists and lead the way in inclement weather. Everyone knew that the best food on the road could be found where the trucks were parked. That image is long gone now. In its place is a frightening image of a speeding, drug-using, lawbreaking band of renegade truckers, who are all just in it for the money. In the early days of trucking, drivers slept on a board stretched across the seats and spent long, hard days bumping down rutted roads on an unforgiving suspension. Since then, great advances have been made in trucking safety. Modern large trucks come equipped with anti-lock brakes, air-ride suspension and more comfortable sleeper berths. Many drivers now have GPS systems, cell phones, satellite radio, and even internet access in their trucks. Such advances have made trucks safer by providing a less strenuous ride, less probability of getting lost, entertainment to chase away boredom, and communication with loved ones. Still, the job is tough.

Over the past several decades, the public image of truck drivers has steadily degraded. Movies about trucking have helped to promote this degraded view of the industry. “The Hollywood movie machine began cranking out movies about trucking Smokey and the Bandit, Convoy, …and we even had one movie that had a driver that went around running over people”.

Hollywood is not the only culprit, however. News reports tend to sensationalize truck related accidents by using attention-grabbing headlines that emphasize a truck’s involvement in an accident, regardless of fault. Unfortunately, the final blow to the industry’s image comes from within. While a minority, unprofessional and inexperienced drivers do exist. Their unsafe actions help make that negative image believable. Yet, trucking is nothing like the image from which it suffers. Most drivers are out there simply to make a living and get back home to their families safely. They work hard, make many sacrifices, and perform a crucial service to the economy. American truck drivers deserve more respect. A common misconception about the trucking industry is that driving a semi is an easy job that requires little real work. That could not be further from the truth. Truck driving is actually a very physically and mentally challenging job. Dry box and refrigerated freight is often loaded and unloaded by the driver, unless a lumper (person who is paid to do hand loading and unloading) is paid to do it. Flatbed freight, such as steel coils or pipe, must be secured and tarped by the driver. These drivers wrestle with large, heavy tarps and chains on a daily basis. It is not easy work.

Even the driving part of trucking is not as easy as just getting on the highway and going. A lot of hard work goes into moving a load from point A to point B. Numerous rules and regulations apply to the trucking world. Federal regulations like the Department of Transportation’s Hours of Service are only a small part of the story. State and local laws regarding large trucks range from approved truck routes, to speed and lane restrictions, to weight limits on bridges. These regulations can vary significantly from place to place. Drivers must plan trips around those regulations, as well as shipper and receiver hours, and available driving hours under the Hours of Service.

Trip planning is further complicated by a growing scarcity of large truck parking. Drivers must comply with the Hours of Service Regulations, but the means to that compliance is not in place. “One issue contributing to commercial motor vehicle fatigue may be the lack of safe, available truck parking on or near Interstate highways. As a result, drivers may drive for longer than is safe, or may find themselves unable to obtain undisturbed sleep during a rest period” (FMSCA). After a day of driving, and searching for hours for a parking space, it can be especially frustrating to come across an empty rest area, only to find it posted with a “cars only, no trucks” sign. Dave Ganster has been driving trucks for seventeen years. He says the most difficult challenge in truck driving is watching out for the cars. “A day of driving is a lot like a chess match. Everyday I am involved in dilemmas that are caused by car drivers. They do not realize the risks involved in taking chances around a big truck. It’s mentally draining.”

An article in Ladies Home Journal agrees:

Ordinary motorists frequently contribute to fatal crashes between cars and trucks—perhaps as often as 80 percent of the time, according to a 2002 study by the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety. Many car drivers tend to cut too close in front of trucks, unaware of how much time a big rig needs to slow down or come to a full stop….

Enduring so many challenges to make a living must garner some respect, and yet the sacrifices made by professional drivers go far beyond merely performing a tough job. Driving a truck for a living can have serious health implications ranging from heart problems to deep vein thrombosis. Sitting for extended periods can cause blood to pool in the legs and form clots, which can then be deadly. This phenomenon has received a lot of news recognition because it often affects airline travelers. Eating at truck stops on a regular basis can lead to cholesterol and obesity issues. Dave Ganster says that it can be difficult to find a good meal on the road. “Often, when I stop for fuel, or for the night, the truck stop restaurant is busy. If I want a quick meal, my best option is to grab something pre-cooked, like a quarter-pound hot dog, or something deep-fried.” According to Scott Madar of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Health and Safety Department, “Drivers have few opportunities for exercise and limited choices for meals. If your only option is fast food and there’s no chance for exercise, you’re on the fast track for obesity, heart-disease, and other ailments”. Many drivers attempt to combat these risks by carrying their own food--along with refrigerators, crock-pots, hot plates and, grills, to keep and prepare it--as well as by walking or running on a regular basis. Still, the industry has a higher than average risk for many health problems, with one of the highest occupational illness and injury rates in the country. Trucking takes a toll on driver health.

Trucker's personal relationships can also take a beating because of the job. Extended periods away from home often leaves one partner with all of the home, money and child-rearing issues, and the other missing all of the family milestones. In an article in NATSO Trucker’s News, Kay McFarlane, married to a truck driver, says, “I refer to a trucker’s wife as a married single mom”. Cell phones and wireless internet access are easing communications problems, which were more severe in previous decades. Still, truckers face a higher than average divorce rate.

Sacrificing health and family to work at a challenging job is not limited to trucking. However, making those sacrifices in addition to low pay seems to be unique to the industry. In "Sweatshops on Wheels: Winners and Losers in Trucking Deregulation", author Michael Belzer says:

Research suggests that long-haul drivers earn a modest income despite working more than 60 hours a week. Long hours of driving, combined with many uncompensated hours spent waiting and performing non-driving tasks, have driven compensation down toward—and in some cases below—the legal minimum wage. Owner operators, a large component of the trucking industry, work long hours every week, all the while watching their initial investment in a costly rig disappear.

One reason is that trucking is exempt from the maximum hours provision of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In other industries, the provision helps to regulate labor competition. In trucking, labor market competition is high, and rates and wages continue to spiral downward. Deregulation of the industry, however, has been the main contributor to this trend by allowing much more competition into the market. Since government deregulation of trucking, the average pay for truck drivers has dropped 30%. Pay for other industries dropped around the same time, but only about 2%. Truck drivers today actually make less, adjusted for inflation, than they did thirty years ago.

Truck drivers work long hard hours at a difficult job, and make many sacrifices to do it. The argument that they choose to do so does hold some weight here, but there is one important and often overlooked reason that they should garner more respect for what they do. This country needs them. “America’s economy has become heavily dependant on trucks,” according to Belzer. Whether it is raw materials traveling to a manufacturer, or imported goods moving from the port to the distribution center, every product made in, or imported to the U.S. must travel by truck at some point in the process. Railroads, which are currently operating at near capacity, could never handle the massive amount of freight that moves across the country. The most evident reason is that for trains to carry all of the nation’s goods, every manufacturing plant, retail outlet, and car dealership would have to be reachable by rail. Truckers are vital to the economy because there is no better way to transport freight, and no quick, easy way to replace them.

About three million trucks travel the nation’s highways picking up and delivering freight. Without those trucks, this country would be in big trouble. So much depends on trucking that a collapse of the industry would result in long lines for every thing from fuel, to food, to toilet paper. Nevertheless, their contribution is underappreciated. Safely piloting a seventy-foot long, eighty-thousand pound vehicle down the nation’s highways requires skill and professionalism. American truck drivers work long, hard, low-paying hours to complete their vital mission, and they deserve a little more respect for the job they do.