A Trucker’s Family

As I was lamenting to my wife Lesli about what I should talk about this week, she commented (somewhat tongue in cheek), “How about all the holidays and family events that truckers miss?” At first, I laughed then I thought that maybe it is a subject that needs a little more light on it. As truckers, we focus on what our job is. We focus on our duties but often times we don’t give enough credit to the “support crews”. We all have different circumstances but what is overlooked is the price our loved ones pay for our choice of occupation.

This year alone, I have missed Valentines Day, My wife’s birthday, Memorial Day, both of my daughters birthdays, and our Anniversary! On the schedule I’m on now, I will also miss Halloween, my birthday, and Thanksgiving is up in the air. I did have the 4th of July at home.

I’ve talked about many of the issues that we face regarding new rules, lack of training standards, insurance minimums, self insurance, getting involved, lack of respect, and other things. The one thing that gets overlooked the most is the personal price paid by drivers and their families. No matter where you are in the economic scale, every one of us are here to improve the lives for ourselves and our families.

In return for my commitment to my chosen occupation I provide a decent lifestyle for my family. I can do this because I chose to educate myself on how to do this business. It’s not merely a job to me. I became an independent operator early on because once I saw how to provide better for my family, I couldn’t just keep on doing what I had been doing.

Of all the considerations that I made, the price my family would pay was one that I didn’t fairly assess. I didn’t give credit to the fact that my wife would have to basically raise our children by herself. Oh yes, I would check in for a couple days a week and expect to be treated like the king of my castle (mobile home at that time). I would, and still do, attend to a few things that need attention at home and try to work that in with my self proclaimed entitled relaxation.

Over the years, Lesli has assumed more and more responsibilities to allow me to do what I do. She does things like mow the lawn, schedule repairs on cars, schedule all the dentist, doctor, and optical appointments. She shows up at recitals and school functions in support of our kids and our nieces that she has cared for since their births. Lately, she has even learned how to caulk around windows and on siding to prepare for winter. Over the years, her responsibility list has kept on growing while mine has stayed the same.

As our business grew, she had to assume the duties of bookkeeper and learn how to manage our finances and record everything in bookkeeping programs, issue invoices and record payments and follow up on late payments and look for loads while I am driving. All of which she has become very accomplished at. Then when I would come home, she would answer all the financial questions I would have.

As for my kids, they grew up in an environment that was normal when I was gone. When I was home, things were different until I hit the road again. I missed many teacher conferences, track meets, ballet and piano recitals, and swim meets as well as other school functions. I wish I could have received pictures on my smart phone of the events that I wasn’t able to attend but they weren’t invented then.

There is a price that we all (drivers and families) pay to pursue this profession. For some, that price is higher than others. For me, missing each of these events left me feeling regret and yet a small bit of satisfaction remained knowing that I was doing the best that I could for my family. Ultimately, that is the balance that we all must strike to be a trucker. We sacrifice our family time to provide the best we can for our families. For my family, each of them dealt with my absences in different ways. I always felt like they were happy when I was able to attend their events but I knew my presence wasn’t required.  

I have to say that the trucking occupation has given us a pretty good living; better than anything else that was available to me at the time. It’s not all bad but it has had its price from time to time. The focus of this piece however is to shine a small light on the life of a trucker’s family. If I could turn back time and make that choice again, knowing what I know now, I would still choose this occupation for the same reasons.

There is some 3-3.2 million drivers currently employed in the United States. There are at least a half dozen people closely associated with each of these drivers. So when you go shopping, remember that not only a trucker brought it but, a trucker’s family also paid a price for you to have the things you want. As you drive down the road and pass that truck, take a moment to realize that many people have paid a price for you to have the things you need for your family. Sometimes, a little wave or consideration on the road makes everyone feel a little bit better about what we do and what our families have given up to bring America’s goods to market. If you happen to run into a family member of a trucker, please express your appreciation for their sacrifices too. Thank you.

Who’s in That Truck?

As you go down the road today, you see a lot of big trucks. Lately there seems to be no shortage of news stories about those evil truckers. We are a dangerous, fatigued, run unsafe, filthy, fat, out of shape, littering bunch of rejects of society. We chase the dollar so hard that we put everyone else on the road in danger. At least that’s the image the media and safety advocacy groups seem to portray. What I would like to do is tell the story from a trucker’s point of view.

The trucking industry is indeed the place that every down on their luck person can go to find employment. It’s not a job for everyone but it is a job for anyone who is willing to work hard and learn and maybe sacrifice a little to have a future. When you look in that window of a truck as you go by, what is it you see? Do you see that person the media says is so out of control? Let me introduce you to the majority of who those people really are.

I am a member of an association called Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA). We just finished the fall board meeting. In that room is a collection of drivers both current and retired. Almost all have at least 2 million miles accident free. Most of those drivers have even more experience. They are men and women from all over the United States and Canada. I had the opportunity to get to know a very special driver there that just retired. He had over 6 1/2 million accident free miles! He has been driving over 60 years. Hats off to you Mr. John Taylor! All around the table there is the best of the best.

With that said, you may think that doesn’t represent the truckers you see. So, who are they? They are fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, husbands, wives, aunts, uncles and friends. They are people that have wanted to drive truck all their lives. They are people who never thought they would be driving trucks. They are people who have the same hopes and aspirations that you do. They want to provide for their families. They want to send their kids to college. They want reasonable healthcare. They want to retire some day. They would like to take a short vacation once in a while.

I’ve met people driving trucks that come from all nationalities and just about any occupation you can think of. The one that tops the list is probably former military people. The very ones that fought for our country. Also you will find some that come from professional careers like lawyers, accountants, and doctors and teachers that decided for some reason or another to change their profession. Some have PhDs. Some drivers are high school drop outs. Some completed high school and went to work. There really isn’t a typical truck driver.

There is one thing that every driver on the road has in common. No one wants to die and no one wants anyone else to get hurt. A far cry from the image painted of drivers today. In fact you might be surprised to know that many of those drivers have been honored by various groups for saving the lives of other motorists. They are the Highway Angels and Highway Heros. With that said, there are many more that carry out good deeds everyday that receive no recognition what so ever. They help others out of their own kindness. You will also find that truck drivers are some of the most charitable working people on earth. Truckers are involved in so many charities that I can’t even to begin to name them. Truckers are always ready to help those down on their luck. They are some of the first to organize to provide aid in the case of a natural disasters. The image emerging now should be somewhat different than where we started.

The average truck driver drives about as much in one year as the average car driver does in 10 years. The average driver at OOIDA has over 2 million miles. That’s 200 years of car driving. In the October 2014 edition of Land Line Magazine, Managing Editor Jami Jones has an op-ed piece titled Lauer. Lawyers. Lies. that lays out very clearly the true accident rates of cars and trucks. That piece points out that 75-80% of fatality accidents that involve trucks were not the fault of the trucker. In 2012, while there were 3,921 deaths in crashes involving large trucks, there were 29,156 people who died in crashes that did not involve large trucks. If cars drove the same miles that trucks do that would equate to approximately 291,560 deaths in cars versus 3,921in trucks.

Yes, the people in that truck may annoy you at times but above all, they are by far the safest drivers on the road and deserve the respect of the motoring public and the media. Now, please take another look in the window of that big truck.

Truck Stops

I was recently reminded of how different the truck stops today are from the ones of yesteryear. Although I hardly feel qualified to make the comparisons, I am compelled to recall the differences I remember. To do this I have to go back to my childhood growing up in the small southern town of Bradford, Arkansas as the beginning of my story.

The earliest recollections I have of a truck stop would be in the early 60’s. The main road through the area was highway 67. At the time, it was the main road between Little Rock and St. Louis. On the north end of our little town, there was a restaurant that was known as “The Truck Stop”. I’m sure it had an official name but that tidbit is lost to history. As I recall, it had limited parking for trucks and some parking for a few cars.

The thing about truck stops of that era is that they were centered around the restaurant. Drivers would gather, eat and tell stories. There were few other services available at a truck stop of those times. Services were only found at the larger stops. In those days, a fuel stop and a truck stop were not necessarily the same thing. Our little truck stop was just a restaurant. It’s not really fair to say it was “just a truck stop”. Truck stops back then had the best food around. If you wanted to go out for a really good meal, you went to the truck stop. On a family trip, eat at a truck stop. That was before all the chain food establishments. A truck stop survived by being good and by word of mouth.

A fuel stop was quite different. In those days, a driver might try to fuel at places that gave out S&H Greenstamps or some other type of stamps. These stamps were the beginning of modern day bonus points. In those days you would save all your stamps and trade them for merchandise when you had enough. You would pick up a “gift book” to see what you could get with your stamps. These stamps were collected and put into small pamphlets that held a certain quantity of stamps commonly referred to as books. You would choose your item from the gift book and send in your books to purchase that item. On a side note, my sister saved up Top Value stamps from the grocery store to buy me my first aquarium.

At these truck stops, a driver might grab a good meal and catch a few hours of sleep and hit the road again. It seemed that there was always a rotating stock of trucks out front. Parking didn’t seem to be as much of a problem then.

In the 70’s, my father-in-law was a company driver. In his day, the stops were growing and starting to change. Every few days he would stop at a cheap motel and rent a room to get a shower but most other services were starting to become more common. In those days, it was nice to get a break from trying to sleep in an old cabover with no A/C. Relax for a night and hit it again.

Fast forward to the early 90’s when I started driving. There were quite a few more of the larger stops. They usually had fuel and a restaurant and some services such as showers, maybe a washer and dryer, and usually a TV room. Back then you made enough money to eat all your meals in a restaurant. There were no microwaves, inverters nor refrigerators for the most part. I had a plug in cooler that I used to keep a few sodas and maybe a sandwich in. I think that might have been the beginning of how we operate today.

In those times, you would go into the restaurants and usually find a “Professional Driver” section. It usually consisted of an area with a large table or several smaller tables. Many times there would be a bar style seating. Drivers would gather and talk about the experiences of the day or the past. As a young driver, I found these areas a place to learn from the older drivers. I had little to say to fit in with their conversations. It was a place that I could ask questions and gain from the wisdom of their experiences. Many of my early habits were formed by listening to these seasoned drivers. You would never go into a place like that and start running your mouth about what you could do without being able to back it up.

I also remember that there seemed to be a lot more respect for one another. If you needed help, someone was usually there to help you without asking. There was a greater sense of brotherhood. Truckers would even pull over on the side of the road to lend a hand if you broke down.

Today, we have “Travel Plazas”. Truckers no longer go inside and spend money to support an establishment. We buy fuel, park and eat in our trucks. Many have lost respect and throw their garbage and other things on the ground where they park and simply leave in the morning. We don’t go in and have those conversations that share so much information around the dinner tables anymore. The chain restaurants usually have booths that separate people rather than offering an environment to socialize. That is done in the TV room, if at all. Today, drivers simply don’t make enough money to be able to do those things and get ahead. As a result many truck stops have been forced to charge for parking.

I don’t want to suggest that we go back to the “good ol’ days” because driving truck in those days was considerably harder than it is today in many of respects. I’m just saying that as our industry has progressed, it has left some things behind that gave driving truck a much deeper meaning. I hope my recollections stir up many fond memories for you.

What’s The Problem?

If you go to a truck stop and interview multiple truck drivers and ask the question, “What do you think is the biggest problem in trucking today?” You are likely to get a pretty wide variety of answers. Answers like ELD’s, HOS, Pay, Home time, Lack of respect, Lack of freight, Over regulated, Driver training, No parking, Speed limiters, Electronic gadgets, CARB, Tolls, Taxes, Insurance, and the list goes on. All of these are definitely issues of concern. I believe there is one issue almost no one will say that is likely to be the biggest problem we have industry wide. That issue is The Lack of Self Governance.

To explain further what I mean by this, let me start by throwing out a few numbers. Although some of these numbers are speculative, the conclusion is the same. The population of the United States is about 319 million. About 137 million are registered voters. About 40-60% of those vote. That’s 55-82 million people. We currently have between 3-3.2 million drivers. Almost all of truck drivers are eligible to vote. That means that truck drivers make up 3.7-5.5% of all eligible voters.

With these numbers in mind, we have 435 representatives in congress and 100 senators. If you take an average, that would be 7,125 voters per congressman and 31,000 per senator. By now the picture should be getting clearer. These are numbers too large to be ignored! We have the power to set the language of the discussion if we will participate. This goes to the root of the topic. If you acknowledge these numbers as being possible, then look at how many are really engaged, you start to get to the real problem. I have no numbers to support how many drivers are proactive but if I had to guess, it would be less than 10% really ever engage their representatives.

Now, go back and add a second question to ask of drivers. “Have you contacted your representatives about this problem?” The overwhelming answer is NO. Our representatives are the only people that can cause real changes to happen. Without our voices, all they hear are the voices of the special interests that are very well funded and omnipresent. Right now, they are the people with our representatives ears. We can change that! The only thing more feared than a financial contributor is a negative popular opinion and a risk of loosing the next election.

That pretty much sums up the big picture of our situation. Now let’s look at the same issue (Lack of Self Governance) on a more personal level. We (drivers) have been told that “We are the captains of our ships.” The final decision is up or us. Every driver will reach a time when you have to decide between what you know is right or what you should do versus what someone else wants you to do. At that moment, that is where the reason of self governance should be applied. Safety should be the first priority of every driver on the road, not money nor favor.

There are countless pressures on us to bend the rules or push a little farther or run a little over weight and so on almost daily. Dispatchers may want you to drive longer than you have left on your day to make a delivery. This is where we fail to train drivers the importance of their decisions. Sometimes fear of retribution from the employer causes us to make the wrong choices. If you work for that kind of employer, you need to protect yourself by finding a different job as soon as possible. These types will not have your back in any type of challenge if it costs them at all.

Many of the rules we have today started out with the purpose of protecting the driver. Examples of this are HOS and log books and equipment inspections. If we, the driver, have enough courage to stand up and tell others what we will not do, the need for many regulations would never arise. Some drivers have been in the news lately that have refused to operate faulty equipment and lost their jobs. These drivers have been rewarded with settlements in law suits and the respect of drivers across the land. These are drivers that are self regulated. They are professionals. They will not do the wrong thing when it jeopardizes safety for them or the public.

Finally, in summation, it is up to us how we operate and what the face of our industry looks like. We can choose to paint that picture for ourselves or we can let others paint that picture for us. Either way, it will be painted. I urge every driver to step up their game a little bit everyday and be the examples to newer drivers. We can restore reason to our industry if we get involved by practicing self governance.