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Long Haul Trucking – A View From the Cab
Trucking is not just a job; it is a lifestyle. For most, the transition to the trucking lifestyle is a difficult one. This is the reason why the vast majority of CDL school graduates are no longer in the trucking business after six months… or shorter. They are not prepared for the challenges or for the days and weeks spent away from home and family. Some universal truths about the trucking industry are not always pretty.
One of the first, and most obvious, is that any company engaged in the trucking business is not going to offer the normal amenities that are taken for granted in most other jobs. For instance, sick leave is non-existent in most trucking jobs. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid… period.
When I worked a “normal” job, it never posed much of a problem if I needed to take half a day off for a doctor’s appointment. In trucking, keeping a medical or dental appointment is often a roll of the dice. You never know if you are going to be home to keep it. I once lost a crown on one of my front teeth, and had to drive around for two weeks looking like a prizefighter that should consider alternative career options.
When I worked a “normal” job, no matter how stressful or harrowing the day had been, I always had the comfort of knowing that I would go home at the end of it and sleep in my own bed. In trucking, a long-haul driver eats alone in his truck or at a truck stop at the end of a long day, and then retires to the “comfort” of a small sleeper berth. Then, he gets up after a few hours rest and does it all over again. I never thought it would be possible to miss the company of some of my annoying former co-workers, but the loneliness of the road is very real.
One of the biggest issues affecting many truckers is anti-idling laws adopted by many states. These laws put limitations on the amount of time a truck is allowed to idle and offers stiff penalties to violators. For instance, in the city of Denver, a truck can legally idle for 10 minutes per hour. Well, if it is 8º in the Mile-High City, it takes 10 minutes or longer just to warm up a diesel engine. Do the lawmakers expect the driver to get up throughout the night every hour to idle for 10 minutes and then return to a freezing cocoon? The only word that pops into my mind is… DUH!
In Illinois, the law states that a driver must be present when idling. I wonder how law enforcement intends to discern this. Should they knock on the cab to wake us up? This seems like an equally brilliant method to assist a driver in developing a healthy sleep pattern.
The laws in other states are proportionately ingenious, but I think that the people who drafted these laws should attempt to rest in a 20º truck in the winter, or a 95º truck in the summer. Then, let’s drive 600 miles the next day and-think safety!
Unfortunately, this indifference to basic humanity does not stop with bone-headed lawmakers. I have experienced it, firsthand, from a trucking company. The story goes like this:
Shortly after I had arrived in Odessa, Nebraska, my air-conditioning compressor died and it got well above 90º in the truck. I called the breakdown department to tell them that I needed to drop my load at a nearby terminal so that I could have it repaired. The initial reply that I got was, “The Company doesn’t consider air-conditioning to be a valid reason to reassign a load.”
My reply was, “That’s probably because ‘the company’ is not the one who is trying to get some rest in a ninety-five degree truck so that they can drive 600 miles tomorrow. If the roles were reversed I’ll bet the pointer on their ‘validity scale’ would have a dramatic reversal.”
It boggles my mind when I consider that most people would be prepared to come to blows over an issue of having their pet subjected to extreme heat or cold, but many trucking companies and lawmakers seem to pay no heed to a moral thermometer in regard to subjecting truck drivers to sub-standard conditions. This seems to lend support to my assertion that a trucking company appears only to care about the amount of revenue generated-not the welfare of the driver. Despite their sophist rhetoric to the contrary, the reality lies in their actions.
On this occasion, it was necessary to threaten to quit in order to afford myself a basic necessity. However, playing the “I’ll quit” card isn’t always the smart option. If a driver quits when he is a long way from home, and then expects the company to provide him with transportation, he is in for another wakeup call. As another driver points out on a popular trucker’s forum in regard to this:
“They will bend you over and give it to you with no Vaseline every time… guaranteed!”
The smart option is to suck it up and wait until you are routed home and all of your belongings are removed from the truck. A trucking company will not pay to have your belongings shipped either. At the very least, the truck should be turned in at a company terminal and the driver should have the financial forethought to provide his own transportation for himself and his belongings. Believe me, if you get mad and quit when you’re in Moose Turd, Ontario, you’d better have a heavy parka and a good pair of snowshoes!
When it comes to large trucking companies, there seems to be no way to get past the impersonal nature of it. One of the reasons is that dispatchers are assigned to zones. As a result, the drivers and the dispatchers never get to know one another on a personal level. To me, the dispatcher in whatever zone I happen to be in is a faceless “John”, and to him, I am merely a truck number. I have encountered a few exceptions to this rule, and I tip my hat to the precious handful that has attempted to insert their own personal touch. But in the end, the grinding cogs of the huge corporate machine tend to drown out their tiny voices, and the machine spews out a number.
I have often gotten the distinct impression that many managers and dispatchers actually think that they know what road life is like. Having resided on both sides of the fence, I’ll say that they can understand the trucking life by sitting behind a desk about the same way that I can understand what it’s like to be a cowboy by watching a rodeo. I may get a narrow snapshot of what it’s like to be a cowboy, but I still have no inkling of the cowboy life.
While sitting in an air-conditioned office, it is impossible to understand what it’s like to have the need to make nightly applications of Emu oil on your feet to keep your heels from cracking; or the necessity to urinate in a milk jug; or being forced to drive 600 miles with a toothache; or the need to spray Lotrimin in your crotch to prevent jock itch. Neither, can they understand the necessity to spend an entire day of precious home time making preparations to go on the road again.
I’ll be the first to admit that my “view from the cab” does not provide me with an insight to the inner workings of a trucking company or the stresses, responsibilities, and headaches contained therein. I also concede that successful management does not always coincide with the desires of employees. Despite my railing, I have a high degree of respect for strong, competent, and ethical business leaders. Like truckers, they do not live in a world where “just anyone” can thrive. My contempt is only for the business leaders who are greedy and unethical, and whose primary goal is to line their own pockets like a squirrel stuffing acorns into it’s cheeks, with no regard to the hardworking people who make their standard of living possible.
The trucking industry sheds a bright spotlight on the fact that there are often ethical conflicts between making money, and doing the right thing. A description on a trucker’s website paints the trucking industry as: “…basically a slave industry with truckers working on the average of over 70 hours per week, many of [whom] are not paid while sitting in shipper’s parking lots for, sometimes, 8 hours or more (a whole workday for average Americans!) Truckers are not paid overtime as others.”
I probably wouldn’t go so far as to call it a “slave industry”. Any driver is perfectly free to quit at any time, but the trucking industry certainly, in my estimation, lags behind in affording the basic amenities for drivers enjoyed by the majority of the American work force. Trucking, certainly, is an industry in which you have to stand up for yourself, or you’ll have footprints all over your face.
On a few occasions, I have been asked to offer an insight by people who are considering a career in trucking. The following is the advice I would give to any prospective new truck driver:
· Trucking is a lifestyle more than it is a job. If you are not prepared to make a MAJOR lifestyle change, save your CDL school money and forget about it.
· Research the companies. Check them out online, talk to experienced drivers, and do not be afraid to ask questions. Interview the company. Yes, you heard me right. Prepare a list of questions for a company that you are considering and do not be shy about asking them. Any recruiter worth his salt will be glad to indulge you. If he isn’t… run like the wind. Join a trucker’s forum to get straight answers and to separate the wheat from the chaff. A recruiter isn’t going to tell you that the company he is recruiting for has a 120% turnover rate among drivers. Research the companies!
· Your first trucking job will probably not be with a blue chip company. The genuinely good companies only hire experienced drivers and they do not use recruiters… they don’t need to. All but the most fortunate have to pay their dues before they have a fighting chance to get hired by a really good company that will treat them with respect.
· Even the “good” startup companies are going to treat you like a piece of meat. They care about the freight being delivered… period. Your home time, your quality of life, and your job satisfaction are purely secondary concerns. Be prepared for it.
· If you are thinking of becoming an owner/operator, educate yourself as to what this entails. I’ve seen plenty of new owner/operators who were desperate to sell their truck after 6 months. I’d recommend that anyone start out as a company driver to ensure that trucking is actually what he or she wants to do for a living. I cannot stress it enough… Educate yourself!
· Even with this being said, trucking can still be what you make of it. It affords a freedom and autonomy that most other jobs cannot come close to. Trucking can be a rewarding career, but it doesn’t come without major sacrifices. If you aren’t prepared to make those sacrifices, don’t waste your time and money.
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