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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No fan of snow because it snow fun for me…

December 13, 2008

(Copyright 2008)

The WALTHER REPORT

By Tony Walther

It’s been bone dry here in Northern California, but we’re supposed to get a storm this weekend, to include mountain snow – maybe even some down to the valley floor.

I’m not worried about the snow this year, but I am no snow fan. And, really, I never have been a great snow fan, even as a little kid. I didn’t grow up in snow country, but I do recall playing in the snow in the mountains as a little kid. But I never had proper snow clothes and ended up getting sopping wet and cold, although I am sure I had some fun.

But I think my three winter seasons in Germany while in the U.S. Army was the first thing to turn me off on snow. I spent an inordinate amount of time outside and uncomfortable in it. I know what it is like to get so bone cold that you think you will never be warm again and in fact you feel as if you really don’t remember what warm is, except that it has to be better than cold. And I know, what am I complaining about? I didn’t have to dodge enemy fire.

And then what really turned me against snow is the dozen years I spent going over the Siskiyou Mountains between California and Oregon and a couple of treacherous trips over the Cascades up in Washington State over Snoqualmie Pass. I was a truck driver and many times I had to throw snow chains, which often means applying the heavy iron links to at least twelve wheels. I’ve seen some drivers make it look easy. I was not among them. A lot of people will ask how to apply the chains. It’s easy to tell someone how to do it, but not always easy for someone to understand how to do it. And , I guess there are different methods or slightly different variations on applying the standard big truck snow chain. Learning how to do the job in the dry weather is good for practice and getting the basics down, but in the real world it’s a different story (your hands get ice cold, but it is often hard to manipulate things with gloves on and you will tend to lose things in the snow and people tend to slide into you). However, if one can apply them on dry pavement before the snow, it is a good idea to do so. The downside is that you might wear your chains out, but the up side is that you stay dry and a lot less miserable and it is safer. However, this is not a tutorial on snow chain application, just a commentary.

How do you know when to put the chains on? Well my last employer advised that if you even think you might need them, that’s the time. That is good advice. Better to be safe than sorry.

You need to be in reasonably good health. I know a guy who got a higher paying job, but his new one guaranteed that he would have to apply snow chains. He died of a heart attack while putting on his chains.

It doesn’t take a he-man to put snow chains on a big rig, but I guess it would help. I  once saw a slender, albeit wiry, woman apply snow chains to her truck and double flatbed trailers. I was sitting in the nice heated cab of my own assigned truck debating on whether to put on the chains or wait it out (not a luxury I had with my last job – there I had no choice but to chain up and move on). I watched her move from wheel to wheel in a steady and yet almost casual manner. It seemed that in short order she got the job done. Meanwhile, I heard over the CB radio that there was an alternate road I could take that would go around the mountain and no chains were required. I took it. When I met up with the main highway, she was on the other side too, removing her chains. I’m not sure what the moral is there. Actually when you’re in that business, you’re just as well off to get the job done and move on rather than fret over whether to put chains on or try to wait it out or find another route (I could have got lost or ran into even worse conditions, or found myself on a non-truck route). At that juncture, I think that lady showed that she was the more experienced driver. I learned a lot on my no-nonsense last job. It’s strange how one learns when he has no choice but to do something.

The thing that puzzled me no end is why people who do not have to be out in the bad weather seem to run toward the storm and get stuck in it. A few years ago a lot of motorists and truckers got stranded for several days up on the Siskiyous, some without food or water or enough warmth. Emergency crews were able to get to some. I got caught on the interstate between the mountain pass and home, but fortunately I was in a dry spot and waited it out there. I was out there because I had no choice. Unless you’re into self punishment, I’d advice canceling or delaying a trip or even turning back at the first sign of bad weather. It’s dangerous and just not worth it. I’ve seen a lot of bad accidents and faced a lot of hair-raising hazards myself.

And weather, especially in the mountains, changes rapidly. You can have sunny skies and dry pavement one minute and blinding snow and icy pavements nearly the next. Been there, done that.

The bad news is that I had to go out on disability because I have cancer. The good news, if it can be called that, since I still have cancer, is that it appears I’ll be out of the snow this year.

Unless you plan to go skiing and you are prepared for the conditions, I’d advise staying out of it.