Some inconvenient truths about truck driving…

March 26, 2009

(This is a slightly updated version of a previous blog.)

People out of jobs are going to truck driving school, an article in my local newspaper said. Been there done that. In fact, a newspaper article is what led me to my more than a decade odyssey out on the road.

Things are not as bright out there today – while there has been a big demand for truck drivers for years, with the downturn in the economy freight movement has fallen off sharply.

But I just wanted to get something in here for anyone who might be considering going the truck driving route.

Most of the entry level jobs for big truck driving are in what is called long haul. You need to realize that the rules of employment are different in that field than most others. The normal laws of pay and working conditions do not apply.

Typically, long haul drivers find themselves waiting a lot, far from home, baby sitting a truck, as I call it.  For the most part, as a long haul driver you will only be paid when your wheels are rolling. Long haul pays by the mile, not by the hour or fixed salary. Some companies do pay a little something for layover or even wait time (but usually not total wait time and such pay is usually not much, often not even minimum wage). And layovers can last for several days. I was once laid over for nearly a week, some 2,500 miles from home.

And if you don’t like wait time, I’d advise staying away from hauling refrigerated or temperature controlled freight (such as produce).  I once logged in 40 hours of wait time in one month, not counting sleeper birth or meal breaks. And I was not paid for any of it, as I recall (and if  I was it was only a few dollars).

I would discuss that issue upfront with a prospective employer (they may string you on, though).

Employers often quote cents per mile, but what they either lie about or do not tell you is that you may well not get in enough miles to make a living. It costs the employer very little to let you sit out there at a truck stop, because the employer does not have to pay you. It costs you a lot. When I began truck driving I found that a lot of drivers really were not making any money. They were simply drawing on their pay for subsistence and when it was time to get their paycheck they had little to nothing left. In fact, some of them owed the company.

Now this all sounds kind of negative. But long haul driving conditions, I believe, have improved somewhat since I got into it and got out of it.

(And for those of you who have not read my blog before, I drove truck for more than a decade. I worked in long haul for most of that time. My last job was what you might call short haul LTL (Less than a load) and paid well, but I came down with cancer, and am not able to work now.)

But I just wanted to point out some things folks not familiar with over-the-road trucking need to know. Another thing you might not have thought of is your schedule. No such thing. While some long haul drivers may have dedicated runs (going to the same place each time), most do not. In the course of a week, you will work around the clock; your hours will vary each day. That’s because pickups and deliveries are made at any hour of the day or night.

I won’t go over hours of service and log book rules in total detail, but basically under the current rules, you have 11 hours driving ahead of you before you are required to take a 10-hour break. There’s no limit to the time you can do non-driving work, but once you have reached 14 hours in one tour, you can no longer drive until you have that 10-hour break (remember, you could get to 14 hours with less than 11 hours driving, due to wait times and even loading and unloading, which you might be called upon to do or assist in, and don’t forget mechanical breakdowns and flat tires – they happen).

If you were to drive solo across the United States (and I have done that) you will find that your start and stop times roll around the clock. It would be like working at a factory but doing a different shift each day. Remember, somewhere in there you have to eat and let nature call and maybe even take a shower (maybe).

Under current rules, if you have 34 consecutive hours off, you start a week again with 70 hours available on your log book.

Some companies or dispatchers or your own greed or all three may goad you into cheating on your log book.  Or you might feel compelled to because you notice that the first to get his or her load delivered is often the first to get a reload. Do not do it! You, not anyone else, are liable if caught or anything goes wrong. The most likely scenario besides you falling asleep at the wheel and killing folks is that someone will run into you. If this happens and your log book is not up to date and/or legal, you may well get the blame under the law, no matter who was really at fault.

Then there is loading and unloading. I will say for most of time I did not touch freight. But if you do not touch the freight, you or someone (your employer) will have to pay someone to do it. It is not uncommon for drivers to end up loading and unloading on their own time and not get paid for it.

Finally, there is weather. If you will be driving over the mountains, particularly on the West Coast, you have to be prepared to handle snow chains. If you are not up to that, you have no business on the road, because you will be a danger to yourself and everyone else (there’s no shame in not being up to it, but there is in getting yourself out there and not being up to it).

I only touched the surface of this road. Most of what I wrote was negative. Ironically, I enjoyed the work immensely (although not every minute or day of it). A lot depends upon your employer and yourself and the type of freight you haul. And some feel a sense of independence out there. It certainly is not like most jobs. You are not highly supervised.

And in this time of high unemployment to have any job has become a status symbol. Just ask any unemployed investment banker (right after you ask him what the hell he did with that bonus check paid by your taxes).

Oh, and one more thing, long haul is not for anyone who wants a home life (that’s why I did not enjoy it all the time). I don’t care what employers promise you, from my experience, long haul drivers have no home life. I have heard many a long haul driver lament: “I didn’t get to see my kids grow up”.

Good luck!

(Copyright 2009)

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