Columns

Road Report: A Trucker Talks About the Industry and Life on the Road

AP Photo/Matt Rourke

Jack has been a professional truck driver for about five years. He kindly agreed to answer a few questions about his work and the trucking industry.

Q: It’s no secret that there’s a shortage of truck drivers, that the work is intense, and that there aren’t enough of you to do it. So, first of all, how are you doing?

A: Insofar as business goes, I’m doing great. In the past six months, I’ve received a 20% raise designed to retain drivers. I also receive four-figure bonuses for certain runs.

The two main types of truckers are owner-operators and company drivers. I’m a company driver. I have a team behind me responsible for scheduling my loads, maintaining my truck, staying updated on permits and licensing, and calculating my pay. I drive out of a small terminal where everyone knows each other. We have “all but” a family atmosphere—“all but” because it’s still a business. I genuinely like the people I work for and can’t imagine driving anywhere else. I feel like I got lucky because horror stories about the trucking industry abound.

My experiences are not those of every truck driver. I pull tankers containing chemicals. Sometimes it’s 5,000 gallons of glue; sometimes it’s a compound that can wipe out a neighborhood. If the general public knew what was traveling their highways, they wouldn’t be so quick to cut us off in traffic.

Q: Please tell us a little about what your work is like. What do you love about it? What could you do without?

A: Driving a truck over the road is not a job. It’s a lifestyle. Not everyone can do it. It takes a special breed of person. There are no weekends, no shifts, no sick days; it’s 24/7. The only way I would know that there was a paid holiday is because there’s extra in my check. My world is run by a small computer. It tells me where to go, when to be there, what to do when I’m there, when to start my trip, and when driving time is up, utilizing the federal hours of service rules (how long you can legally drive before you take a mandated break).

The computer relays information back to corporate. It knows where I am to within 5 feet. There are sensors all over the truck that report back to the computer: speed, following distance, roll stability, how hard you apply the brakes, even the air pressure in each tire (although the tire thing rarely works). If you are speeding, following another vehicle too close, or turning too sharply, a violation is sent to corporate. Too many violations and you get to talk to your boss.

Something not often talked about is the extreme loneliness. I can go days without having a conversation with another person. I’ve always been a loner, but still, it gets to you. My best friends are podcasters. If you have family or a friend who drives a truck, call them. Give them 30 minutes or so. A surprise call from a friend makes my day.

There is so much more I could write about. The danger, for instance—trucking is one of the top five most dangerous professions. A lot of us die out here. I’ve seen the death of motorists up close.

What makes me giggle is the misconception that truckers are stupid. I was watching a sitcom a couple of days ago and a character complained, “Stupid trucker blew his horn.” For the record, I have two college degrees, business, and mathematics. I hold two union trades cards, Millwright and Pipefitter. I’ve taught welding, middle school algebra, and skydiving. I have also built and raced my own stock car and published six novels*.

And out here, I’m not unique. I’ve met teachers, lawyers, businessmen, engineers, military veterans, and one microbiologist. Most had one thing in common: they said, “Screw it, I want out.” They got tired of co-workers, bosses, and politics. They wanted peace and control. They got it. There are over two million of us, each with our own story.

I have met, sometimes only for a few moments, so many interesting people. You want diversity? Trucking is the United Nations. I don’t care if you’re male or female, wear a turban or a cowboy hat. We’re all in the same crazy circus. We help each other whenever we can. We give each other knowing smiles when a rookie takes twenty minutes backing into a parking spot. Not a derisive smile, a been-there-done-that smile. We’ve all been rookies.

I want to be clear: I love this job. It saved me when I was at my absolute lowest. There’s a romance to it that’s not easily explained. I feel as though I’ve been healed by the landscapes. Sunrise and sunsets on deserts, mountains, rivers, and oceans that give perspective to my problems. Also, as with babies, the constant motion soothes the soul.

Q: What are the conditions like for drivers these days?

A: It was tough during the early days of COVID. Plants where I loaded and delivered wouldn’t let me get out of the truck. This means they wouldn’t let us use their restroom. You had to get creative, finding places to go.

Lately, our treatment has improved. Four years ago, whenever I delivered a load, I was met by a surly worker who had to do his normal job as well as supervise the unloading of trucks. I always tried to make those guys laugh. Made a few friends that way. But now, I am met by plant managers who treat me like a queen on a parade float. They offer me refreshments and restroom facilities. You see, because of just-in-time manufacturing (a tight-turnaround production model that creates items to meet demand), if I don’t show up, they have to shut down a plant, which can cost thousands of dollars a minute. Not too long ago, trucking companies bid for jobs. Now these jobs are bidding for trucks. Good for me, bad for the country.

For our VIPS: Logistics Expert Says He Knows How to Solve the Supply-Chain Crisis. Will Biden Listen?

Q: The Biden admin is claiming its new vaccine mandate won’t apply to drivers, but they’ve made—and broken—other COVID-19 promises in the past. What’s the vibe among drivers regarding a possible vaccine mandate? Do you think a lot of them would walk?

A: I can’t speak for others, but I’m thinking over 20% will walk. Many will get fake vaccine passports. That’s easy enough out here.

As for me, I vacillate. When COVID first broke and the word was that millions would die, my boss called me into her office. They needed drivers to run alcohol from Florida to New Jersey to make hand sanitizer. She said I didn’t have to go. I’m a redneck. I hate the northeast. I’m not real fond of big cities and their attitudes. But I’m also a military veteran. I took an oath. Those people up there are Americans. They’re my people, too. So, I made quite a few trips.

Now I feel like I’m in the cheap seats at the Old Globe Theater, watching some sinister Shakespearian play. We are constantly being lied to. We were sold the religion of these masks. I went to Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical warfare school in the Navy. These masks do nothing. I know that, I knew it from the beginning, and I knew they knew. But I watched a terrified public eat it up. And now they want to force me to take part in a phase III clinical trial when they won’t give any info about negative side effects? Unless I get some solid information, I’m thinking they’re going to have to fire me.

Q: What industry shifts have you noticed over the past year or so, as supply chain issues emerge?

A: We are hauling more stuff from the east coast and mid-west to the west coast, probably because their products are sitting on ships in the Pacific, waiting to be unloaded. Speaking of that, I know people who work at the ports. They say the slowdown is intentional. Who is behind it and why? I can only guess.

Another thing that concerns me is foreign truck drivers. I see these people at the truck stops who can’t speak our language at all. If they can’t speak it, they probably can’t read it. I spend all day reading signs, signs that, if not followed, can cause some serious tragedy.

I saw the cracks in the supply chain a year ago. I warned my friends. I’m afraid it will get much worse before it gets better.

Q: Anything else you want to tell our readers?

A: I want you all to know that we can see what you’re doing in your cars. We watch you drive with your knee while you eat. We watch you drink beer. Might I suggest a koozie? At least pretend it’s illegal. Speaking of that, you may want to lower your roach clip after you take a hit. That will get you in trouble, too. As for some of the other things we see … Maybe you could think about waiting until you get home to do that.

*Jack July is the author of the Amy Lynn action series. The books tell the story of a damaged young woman who becomes a scary efficient assassin, surrounded by her southern clan that is equal parts charming and horrifying. 

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