What is Over-The-Road Trucking Like Today?

Trucking

More than 3.5 million Americans drive commercial trucks today, hauling everything from electronics to automotive parts to Idaho potatoes. Many of these drivers have spent decades behind the wheel as company drivers or owner-operators. Despite the long hours and time away from home, over-the-road trucking has provided drivers with a good income in a job that helps power the American economy.

Trucking is changing, however, with electronic logging, autonomous technology and a driver shortage grabbing headlines in recent years. We at RTS Financial wanted to hear truck drivers’ unfiltered opinions about these and other issues affecting their industry. To get their thoughts, we headed down the highway to Harrisonville, MO.

On a warm October afternoon at the Sapp Bros. travel center, several truck drivers ambled over to chat with us on their way from the fuel lanes to the cash register. Below are their chief concerns and opinions about over-the-road trucking today.

The Impact of ELDs

Thomas, a self-described “box jockey” dry van trucker based in Michigan, has more than 30 years’ driving experience under his belt. He has logged more than 2.5 million miles for two different trucking fleets in his career. A typical month for Thomas is nearly 30 days on the road and only three days at home.

“I throw money at my house, but I live in my truck,” he said.

Thomas’s employer has used Qualcomm electronic logging devices (ELDs) for years, so the controversial Dec. 18 deadline for most truck drivers to use ELDs will not change the way he operates. In fact, Thomas predicts the new federal regulation will weed out many truck drivers and fleets that cheat on their paper logs and violate hours-of-service rules. Forcing those truckers off the highways is something he would welcome.

“Some of these truckers,” Thomas said, nodding toward the rigs parked in the fuel lanes, “I wouldn’t give a nickel for.”

Other drivers are less enthusiastic about ELDs. Andre, who hauls produce cross-country for a 500-truck fleet, has used a logging device for three years. The technology is strict in calculating and enforcing hours-of-service rules, which require drivers to take a 10-hour break after 11 hours on the clock. Andre said that doesn’t always jibe with his sleep schedule.

“Your (hours-of-service) clock is running. It don’t care,” he said. “It makes you drive when you’re tired.”

Jay, a fleet owner who operates five trucks out of Arkansas, is uncertain if he will be required to comply with the ELD requirement on Dec. 18. His fleet operates “glider kits”—newer trucks with older engines installed—which may exempt him from the new rule. The ELD mandate only applies to trucks built after the 2000 model year. Jay is unsure if that loophole applies to new trucks with old engines. Regardless, he expects his company to eventually adopt ELDs.

“When the law goes in for us, we’ll go to the tablets,” he said. “My wife will take care of that.”

Detention Time Blues

Some of the truckers we interviewed oppose ELDs because their mandated service times include the many hours spent parked at distribution centers, waiting to pick up or deliver a load. The amount of time that truck drivers spend in “detention” is a growing industry problem. Many truckers are paid by the mile, so they aren’t making money while waiting on shippers and receivers. At the same time, hours of service includes detention time, which limits the number of hours drivers can spend driving—and making money—during a shift.

Kelvin, who hauls refrigerated loads out of Atlanta, said he just spent five hours waiting to unload at a Walmart facility. That kind of delay is pretty typical, but nothing like the 24 hours he once had to spend at a distribution center in Florida.

“Sometimes it takes all day just to load,” Kelvin said. “I think ELDs are going to make that an even bigger issue.”

If electronic logging means stricter enforcement of hours of services, many drivers believe that shippers and receivers should compensate them more money for wasted time and lost wages. Many shippers and brokers do provide drivers $50 per hour in contingent pay for detention times exceeding three hours. That’s not enough, said Tim, a company driver who operates a refrigerated truck.

“You’re at the mercy of the shipper or receiver,” he said. “They don’t care. They get away with murder. We need to hold them a little more accountable for the amount of time you’re stuck there.”

Sharing the Road with Four-Wheelers

Truck drivers may be split on government regulations, but they all seem to agree that sharing the highways with smaller vehicles is one of the biggest risks of the job. Mark, who hauls boats for a major trucking fleet, said much of the motoring public—which many truckers call “four wheelers”—is ignorant about heavy trucks. Smaller trucks, cars and SUVs often cut right in front of the nose of Mark’s Kenworth, paying no heed to how much room he needs to safely slow his 80,000-pound rig.

“If a day goes by that I don’t see something stupid done by somebody, that’s rare,” he said. “It’s not that they’re stupid, it’s that they don’t know any better.”

John, a retired military veteran who now drives a dedicated Walmart truck for Swift Transportation, loves his job but is often shocked by what some drivers attempt to do in heavy traffic. The reckless behavior seems to be getting worse as more trucks and cars than ever before must share the road.

“They do not respect the size of the vehicle. They don’t give us the room we need and you know it’s just a matter of time before someone loses a life,” John said.

Infrastructure and Parking

Justin, from Springfield, MO, has only been driving a truck for two years. That’s long enough for him to form some opinions about the industry. One of the biggest daily problems the refrigerated and dry van driver faces is finding adequate parking. Justin, who often travels with his wife, said it can take him 30 minutes to an hour to find a place to park his rig when he needs to be off duty. The summer season, when campers and RVs take up many spots at travel centers and truck stops, is especially difficult.

“It can be just as challenging in the middle of the day as the middle of the night, because everyone is stopping for lunch,” he said.

President Donald J. Trump won the vote of many truckers because of his promise to spend $1 trillion fixing America’s crumbling highways, bridges and supporting amenities. Mark, who has 40 years of driving experience, said poor infrastructure is a nationwide problem. Some stretches of Interstate like the 200 miles between Dallas and Oklahoma City on I-35 are so bad that his back often hurts from driving them.

“We got a lot of infrastructure issues and we don’t have the political will to fix them,” Mark said.

Ups and Downs of the Trucking Life

Over-the-road work has always been a tough way to make a living. With increased regulations, frequent delays and incomes that have not kept pace with inflation, driving a truck seems to be getting tougher. Many young workers who would be ideal truck-driving candidates now opt for jobs that keep them closer to home. The average age of a U.S. truck driver today is 55—just 10 ten years shy of retirement. The American Trucking Associations estimates there is currently a shortage of 36,000 truck drivers in the industry. That number is expected to increase to more than 50,000 by the end of 2017.

Kent operates a rig out of Montana and often hauls Idaho potatoes this time of year. Whenever possible, he takes his wife and three-year-old boy along with him. Their tractor-trailer cab is as big as a small apartment, and Kent’s son loves pointing out and identifying the models of other rigs on the road.

Kent appreciates the trucking life, but he doesn’t like some of the changes. For one thing, the comradery and cooperation among trucker drivers is now mostly part of a bygone era.

“It used to be, if someone broke down, you would stop and help them out. That doesn’t happen so much anymore,” he said. “It’s a different world, a different time now.”

Still, most drivers we talked to said the positives outweigh the negatives. While Kelvin could do without the detention times, he loves trucking through places like Texas, where all things—including truck-stop diner meals—are bigger.

“My favorite part of trucking is just seeing the country. It’s just beautiful,” he said.

Despite the challenges, truck driving still provides a good income if you know what you’re doing, said Thomas, the 30-year driving veteran.

“Some of us are good enough that we get special benefits,” he said, mentioning that his fleet pays for cable TV in his cab. “You can’t beat that with an ugly stick.”

One thing that hasn’t changed is the pride truck drivers still take in their work. They’re part of an industry that hauls 10 billion tons of freight year a year and generated $676 billion in 2016 revenue. Trucking, some of them pointed out, still drives the American economy.

“Remember, you couldn’t have it if we didn’t bring it,” Thomas said as he walked back to his truck in the Sapp Bros. fuel lane.