Thursday, September 24, 2009

Trucks trucks everywhere! Part 1

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“30,000 pounds... of mashed... bananas” - Harry Chapin

Driving a truck isn’t for sissies. Most of you know that intellectually, but few of you appreciate it in your gut. What I’d like to do here is three important things: first, give you an appreciation for what it’s like to be a truck driver; second, help you if you want to be a truck driver; and third, provide a few useful resources to existing truck drivers to help them do their jobs better, safer, and with greater job satisfaction. Plus, the unwritten guarantee that we’ll entertain and educate!

I've got a few articles for you, and today's is about what it's like to BE a truck driver. Read on!

Stupid people are trying to kill you
I can't count the number of times I've had people do their level best to get either me or themselves killed. Sure, you've probably seen a trucker or two doing something crazy, and it sticks out in your mind because there's so few of them, but the overwhelming majority of truckers take their jobs seriously and drive safely. There are thousands of accidents every year, and trucks are in a disproportionately small fraction of them - that is, if trucks represent 25% of the vehicles on the road, significantly less than 25% of accidents involve trucks. But you can be sure they'll make the news! Of top of that, in accidents that do involve a truck and a car, over 90% of the time, it's the car-driver's fault; however, you can be sure the truck driver will be the one to take the blame. He went through a school to learn how to drive, he gets a year's experience driving every month, so obviously it's the fault of the guy who knows what he's doing, and not of the guy who cut him off.

Okay, so let's talk about that headline.

Crappy drivers try to kill you
I've had plenty of people drive crazy around me. I've had people jump in front of me and slam on their brakes in front of me when I was rolling down a hill at 70 mph because they wanted to make an illegal U-turn. (That person was lucky my brakes and experience were better than his!) I've had lots of people cut me off, or nearly hit me, or sit beside me for several miles or any number of other things.

You're driving a 40 ton vehicle, surrounded by 1 and 2 ton vehicles. You've got to be careful, because they get their licenses from a cereal box, and if you get into an accident, it doesn't matter who was really at fault, you're going to take the blame.

Politicians try to kill you
There are lots of restrictions on where you can take a truck, and few of them are made out of any sense of practicality or your living conditions. There are places where you can't idle your truck. Hey, when it's 50 below, I tell you what, governor of New Jersey, I'll trade beds with you. I'll let you sleep in my truck without any generator or heat, while I sleep in your bed with your wife watching your TV using your bathroom and your shower. Or when it's 100 or hotter, you can sleep in that oven and I'll enjoy your air conditioner.

Let's get realistic here. If you really expect to make a dent in pollution (which is what the no-idling laws are supposedly about), do something intelligent for a change. Ticket cars that belch more smoke than any 100 trucks on the highway. Insist trucking companies install an electrical plug that can power the truck's heater, a/c, and accessories, and then install outlets in truck parking spaces. Then we can just plug in and we don't need to run our engines. That would save a lot of diesel too.

The next thing some of them do is tell you that you can only park for a couple hours in a rest area. How idiotic is that? Federal law requires us to stop and sleep for 10 hours. Where are we supposed to do that? These states aren't exactly brimming with truckstops. Wasn't there some rest area funding bill passed recently because some trucker got killed because he couldn't find a proper place to park for the night?

On top of that, some states restrict a truck's speed. I can't think of anything more dangerous or wasteful of resources on the highway than a slow-moving vehicle on the same road with a lot of fast-moving vehicles. The fast vehicles get all clogged up behind the slow vehicles, wasting everyone's time, and what if someone's not paying attention? They're going to ram right into that slower vehicle, and with a huge speed difference, like 15 mph in some cases (California), that means the car driver is going to die. Considering all the attention that gets focused on insignificant dangers, I don't see why this huge one is ignored.

And let's not even mention the lane restrictions. Through 99% of the cities, a given truck is just trying to drive straight through it. Considering the amount of energy required to get one of these things moving, it makes a lot more sense to dedicate the HOV and express lanes to trucks, not to cars. Get those trucks through so they don't waste time clogging up the highways.

Hollywood turns the world against you
Has there ever been a movie with a truck in it that didn't paint the truck as some all-powerful force of nature and use that to scare the crap out of the viewers?

Your company tries to rip you off
And they usually succeed!

There's this myth that truckers make a lot of money, and therefore trucking companies spare no effort to rip you off. Same for the truckstops. But 95% of truckers are just as broke as the rest of us, if not moreso, because considering how long we have to be out there to get our paycheck, we don't even make minimum wage.

But the problem is that most of us are paid by the mile, and in every case, those miles get shorted. It's just the way the companies do business. You get a load that requires you to drive from the north side of Chicago to the south side, you drive 50 miles, but you don't get paid for any of them because both locations are within the city limits of Chicago. That's an extreme example, but it happens.

And then they make you sit for long periods. Most companies claim to pay layover - that is, if you sit for more than 2 days, you get paid, because bill collector's don't accept "my company doesn't feel like paying me for all the time they expect me to be available out there but they won't let me do any real work". So they make you sit for a day and a half, and then they assign you a load that doesn't pick up for a couple days, and then they give you 5 days to make a 2 day drive. You're sitting 7 days and not getting paid for any of it. Now this is a rather extreme example, and it doesn't happen that way very often, but I'm no stranger to sitting 2-3 days per load without getting paid, and then being given a short run.

Your customers are all different
The majority of the places you go to pick up or drop off do things largely the same, but there are plenty of exceptions. What one will insist you do, another will forbid, and a third will cry bloody murder! It's rather silly; I'd think they'd want to improve efficiency rather than attack it, but I guess that's just me.

Kids love you
It's not all bad, of course. I don't think there's a month that goes by where I don't have some kid(s) asking me to toot my horn at them, and I'd say I average about once a week. It's fun!

You get to travel
I like traveling, and so do a lot of other people. In a given month, you're likely to drive as many miles as most people do in a whole year, and I've gotten to see quite a few interesting things in my time. I've also had the good fortune of being able to visit many friends and family members over the course of my driving days that I otherwise would not have gotten to see.

It's a bit isolating
You're away from home several weeks at a time. You drive about 10 hours and do some work for another four, and by the end of the day, you're tired and just want to sleep. Weeks can go by without you noticing. It's hard to have a lot of friends, unless you already made them before you started driving, and if you live someplace like Florida, where you don't get to go very often, then you don't get to see them. I happen to have family and friends scattered all around the country, but if you've got all your eggs in one basket, you'll never see them but once every month or two.

And unless you've got someone to take care of your affairs while you're on the road, you're going to get behind on your bills too.

There is variety
There are different types of driving jobs. There are local drivers who are home every night. It's not much different than any other job, except you drive a truck.

There are regional drivers, who stay within a few states and are home on the weekends.

And then there are the OTR drivers, who drive all over the country and only get home once every month or two. This one is the roughest on your social life, but it also gives you the best opportunity to see things you've never seen before.

Overall
Okay, so let's break it down. On the bad side, there are stupid people trying to kill you or otherwise make your job harder and more obnoxious than it has to be. It can be a real downer if you focus on it. However, you get a lot of interesting opportunities. You see things you've never seen, wake up to different scenery outside your window every morning, and if you're big on chatting, you encounter thousands of people each year. My first year driving a truck, I saw a dozen family members I hadn't seen since I was little, made a few dozen new friends, saw a few old friends from the Navy, and saw a lot of places few other people get to see. I discovered an awesome chain of Mongolian barbecue restaurants, took pictures of a couple hundred cities in 40 states, explored several towns and cities, and discovered all kinds of interesting tourist spots I can come back to in later years when I have a car.

It's rough some times, but ultimately I feel like I got paid to take a long vacation.

Next time: Next time I'll talk about how to get your start as a trucker, and later, I'll provide some trucker resources, including a list of free wifi locations you can make use of.

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