Monday, December 04, 2006

So You Want to Be a Trucker...

By Alan Burkhart

Lately I've been getting a lot of information requests from people who have either recently entered into trucking, or are considering becoming a trucker. These e-mails are ultimately what have caused me write this article. I'll try to answer the most frequent questions and also anticipate other questions that are as yet unasked. Here goes…

What's it like to be a truck driver?
Not bad. I've been a trucker for most of the last 27 years and I have few regrets. Let me say this: Cross-country trucking is not a job. It's a lifestyle. Being a cross-country trucker changes your life in a few big ways and hundreds of little ways. Your general outlook on life will change a bit because you'll see places and meet people you'd have otherwise not seen or met. You'll learn about how the economy moves, both literally and figuratively, across America and the world. You'll be appreciated for your hard and important work by some, and you'll be abused and disregarded for the very same thing by others. You'll be away from home for periods ranging from days to weeks, and when you're finally home you'll find you appreciate your humble abode just a little bit more than before.

You'll be amazed from time to time at the people who say, "I always wanted to drive a truck." In the last two and a half decades, I've heard this from dozens of "everyday" people, a former World-Champion Pro Wrestler (no, I'm not saying which one), a university science teacher, and a couple of Baptist preachers. Men almost universally have a fascination with Big Iron, and a sleek, fast 18-wheeler is the ultimate Iron, in my opinion. It isn't just men, of course… many women have that same fascination, and there are quite a few female truckers out here, many more now than in years past. I for one like having the girls out here. It keeps us guys on our toes (competition between the sexes and all that).

The bottom line is that it's hard work and you'll get homesick from time to time, but it's also a lot of fun and the money is quite good as skilled labor goes. The real question here is NOT whether trucking is right for you, but whether you are right for trucking. Let's explore that question briefly…

Trucking is a good way of life but like most other lifestyles it also has a dark underbelly. I would be remiss in my responsibility to you if I did not tell you about the "dark side" of trucking. Like any other cross-section of society, you'll find that trucking has its share of undesirable people. You'll find drug users, drug dealers, thieves, smugglers, liars, cowards, prostitutes, and a handful of complete idiots sitting in the driver's seats of 18-wheelers. You'll have to deal with rampant profanity on the CB radio, bad directions from customers, hustlers trying to sell you cheap jewelry and fake Rolex watches, beggars trying to make YOU feel guilty about THEIR bad life-decisions, and warehouse managers who regard truckers as slave labor. You'll deal with what I call "road burnout" when you just know you can't face another day of running your backside off, and stress levels that reach near-biblical proportions. It ain't all fun and games out here, okay? Just thought you'd want to know.

So, you're still here? Good! Read on…
Trucking has plenty of positive aspects to offset the negatives. If you work hard and work SMART, you'll make a lot of money. Most midsize and larger companies have benefit packages ranging from good to great, and you'll find a camaraderie reminiscent of that found in the military, on football teams, and the like. You can strike up a conversation with a total stranger out here because we're all on this boat together. We help each other with no thought of being paid for our time, and you'll see places you'd otherwise not have seen or even known about. You'll visit every major city and small towns you've never heard of. You'll meet people of every stripe, and you'll discover that of all the jobs in America, ours is the most vital to our society. Why? Because almost nothing moves in this country without us. You can't build a rail spur, canal, or runway to every corner grocery store, department store, or auto dealership in the country. Whatever material possessions you may have were at some point delivered by truck. It's unavoidable. Without truckers, America isn't America. Am I proud of this? Yeah, as a matter of fact I am. I like knowing that I do an important service for my country. If that sounds corny to you, please stop reading this article now and find something else to do.

How do I get into trucking?
Nowadays there are many truck driving schools across the country. In addition to the schools most large trucking companies offer training to qualified applicants. At the end of this article I'll include a list of companies that I feel are recommendable. In the "old days" when someone wanted to be a trucker, you had to sneak in through the back door. I drove a tow truck for my father from the time I could simultaneously reach the pedals and see over the steering wheel until I went out into the world. I took my commercial driving test in a 1964 Ford F-750 tow truck with vacuum brakes and no trailer. I have never had a "regular" driver's license. I've always had a commercial license. I lied about my driving experience to get my first trucking job. I damn-near killed myself a dozen times while running down the road asking myself, "what am I DOING out here?!" I can honestly say that I'm a better driver now than I was back then, so don't be afraid if you see me coming.

And please remember that you NEVER know it all. You'll never reach a point in a driving career where you don't have to be cautious every minute of every day. Just because you have control of your vehicle does not mean that everyone around you also has control. Drive as though you're surrounded by idiots, because in many cases, you will be. A truck is only as safe as you make it. There are no unsafe trucks. There are unsafe drivers who have bad driving habits, there are unsafe mechanics who do not properly maintain the equipment, and there are unsafe companies that expect drivers to run when they're tired or when the truck is lacking proper repair. DO NOT let yourself fall into a situation in which your truck becomes an 80,000-pound battering ram. The image at left is of an accident on I-95 back in 2004. The trucker had control of his vehicle. The driver of the minivan (not pictured) did not. That trucker is DEAD. Do you read me here? BE CAREFUL!

In current times the test for a commercial driver's license (now simply known as a "CDL") is more complicated and the driving test is more demanding. You'll need to pay attention in class and work hard to sharpen your driving skills. When I backed into trucking, the test I took was essentially the same as that for a non-commercial license, but you had to be in a one-ton or larger vehicle. That was it. No trailer, no "serpentine backing" test, no nothing. There were a few extra questions on the written test about where to place your reflective triangles or flares if you broke down and other related questions. Any idiot could pass the written test.

Now there are several classes of CDL, with written and driving tests to match each type. You must know how to properly inspect your vehicle and understand the basics of adjusting brakes, fixing lights, etc. You must understand the laws that govern the industry, and separate "endorsements" are required for hazardous materials, tankers, and vehicles with air brakes. There is of course a separate test for each endorsement. You have to know how to secure a load to the trailer, safety procedures for chemical spills, and a host of other information. And, a CDL costs a lot more than it used to. This is partly due to an overly zealous Federal Department of Transportation. However, the F-DOT is only part of a monstrous bureaucracy in Washington that changes the rules almost yearly in an attempt to pacify every brainless truck-hating special interest group that shows up to lobby them "for change." My first license cost me $6.00 back in 1976. When the CDL program (it's a federally administered license now) went into effect in 1992, the prices increased dramatically. The price varies from state to state and prices are subject to change so I won't attempt to quote those prices here. Suffice it to say that it's doubtful you'll get your CDL for less than fifty dollars. And don't bother looking for a movie where Godzilla attacks D.C. I FX'd it myself. Damn... I'm good.

Is it like "Smokey and the Bandit?"
Yes, I've actually had to field this question, and no, it isn't like in the movies. It's fun, it's hard, and it's both demanding and rewarding. But don't try hauling a load of stolen beer at 100 mph with a nutcase in a Pontiac running your front door, okay? It isn't like the movie "Convoy" or "High Rolling" either. Ahem… reality please.

Is there police harassment?
To a degree, yes. You're subject to random inspections and on rare occasion, random searches. You must pass through DOT (Dept of Transportation) checkpoints and weigh stations in which an officer can, on the slightest whim, demand to see your logbook, permits, and freight bills. You are subject to being tied up in a weigh station for half an hour while an inspector (we call'em "Creeper Cops") crawls around under your vehicle looking for ANYTHING that constitutes an equipment violation. Fines are high, jail is a possibility, and the cops know that they have you by the… uh… well you know what I mean.

There are corrupt cops, stupid cops, arrogant cops, cops who are having problems at home and take it out on you, and fortunately there are also a lot of straight-up honest cops. Most of them are content to just do their job and behave in the process. If you encounter a "bad" cop, and you will sooner or later, just swallow your pride and get it over with. Keep your mouth shut until you're told to open it. Be polite and cooperative and the whole thing will go much more quickly and much less painfully. Personally, I regard DOT cops as a necessary evil. Laws are pointless if not enforced, but when I'm on a tight schedule I have little patience for some guy with a cheap badge and a bad attitude who feels he's qualified to tell me how to do my job. I deal with it, but it's rarely easy.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, you'll roll through a weigh station with zero problems. I get hit with an equipment inspection about once or twice per year, and my logbook gets checked about 3 times per year. In most cases the DOT cop just checks things over and sends me on my way. Greet them with a smile, but don't kiss ass. Excuse my French here, but kissing ass is a sure way to arouse a cop's suspicion. Act like a pro, and in most cases you'll be treated like a pro.

What kind of benefits can I expect?
A midsize or larger company will nearly always have health insurance. You can also expect a paid vacation, retirement program, and on rare occasion, sick days. Most trucking company retirement programs are generic 401k's. Seen one, seen'em all.

Most companies have passenger programs that allow you to take your spouse, child, or other family member along. Some charge a small fee to cover the cost of insuring your passenger, and most all of them will require that you and your passenger sign a waiver releasing the company from any liability regarding your passenger. That's fair enough.

Some companies also allow you to carry a pet. One of my brothers is also a trucker and he cherishes the company of his two Rat Terriers, "Dodger" and "Wishbone." I personally don't carry my pets, though I miss them and pay a "kitty sitter" to care for them while I'm gone. I can't imagine having 3 rambunctious cats confined in the cab of a truck. It'd be pure madness. Be mindful of keeping your pet well-groomed and you'll need to be vigilant in cleaning up after your dog, cat, spider monkey, or whatever your chosen pet may be. If you get lax in your housekeeping, your truck will smell like the city dog-pound. So will you. Also, keep in mind that your employer will probably not be very understanding if your truck ends up looking (and smelling) like a city dump. Don't expect to keep your job very long if you allow your pet to completely trash a $100,000 piece of equipment, okay?

What do I look for in a prospective employer?
First and foremost, even before you consider the pay, consider how a company treats its drivers. You have the right, even as a rookie driver, to expect fairness and honesty. You are owed respect and common courtesy, and do not settle for less. It's a driver's job market. Just about every company in the country is constantly hiring drivers to meet the needs of a growing economy. Wages are generally non-negotiable, but you can shop around to find a company with a wage and benefit package to meet your needs.

Also look at their equipment. It doesn't have to be a shiny brand-new truck. Judge how the company maintains its equipment. Safe equipment is your first concern here, but also consider what options are included in their trucks. Some companies strip their trucks to the frame rails, while others have every available option. I'd much rather drive an older truck with tilt, cruise, a good stereo, and a roomy sleeper than a new truck with nothing. At the time of this writing I'm assigned to a 1996 Freightliner with over a million miles on it. But… it's gets all the attention it requires. It has tilt wheel, cruise control, a 470 hp engine, "condo" sleeper, a SERIOUS 4-speaker stereo, and a load of other options. It pulls well enough, runs like a racehorse, and rarely gives me problems. I also have an excellent benefit package considering the size of the company (27 trucks) and I'm treated like family. A rookie driver won't work here. My boss requires years of experience. This job, I feel, is the one I've finally earned.

As to the money, it varies widely from job to job. You must compare pay against benefits and equipment to find the balance that works for you. You won't be able to do this at first. You'll need to work for a rookie-friendly company for a couple of years to gain the credibility found only with hard experience, then you can go out and find a better job if you're not satisfied where you are. Most companies pay by the dispatched mile, based upon the "Household Movers Guide." This is a huge list of standard mileages between cities and towns. Per-mile pay can run anywhere from 25 cents per mile (avoid these cheapskates!) to 40+ cents per mile. At the time of this writing (Jan-05) the average pay per mile for a company driver with 3 years experience is 33 cents per mile. You can run pretty much as many miles as you wish as long as you stay within the Hours of Service Regulations. It's reasonable to expect 2500 to 3000 miles per week from most employers. Do the math. For a single driver with no passenger, living expenses on the road will normally run about $100 per week for eating, smoking, drinking coffee, and whatever else you require. Avoid buying stuff like toiletries and clothing in truck stops, even though most of them have well-stocked stores. Truck stop prices are much higher than your local store at home.

You'll also get paid for extra stops. This is when a load requires that you either pick up and/or deliver to multiple points. There is also extra pay if you have to physically unload the trailer. Most warehouses that have a "driver unload" policy also have "lumpers" onsite who will unload you for a fee. Your company should pay this fee and most of them do pay it without complaint. Avoid companies that don't pay lumper fees. The lumper issue generally only applies to box trailers (dry vans and refrigerated trailers). Flatbeds, tanks, etc rarely have to deal with fees for loading and unloading. Nearly all companies pay for weighing your load (most truck stops have public scales) and the majority of companies also pay for your tolls, if any, as long as the toll road or bridge is on your route.

How do I take a bath?
Nearly all truck stops have showers. The major truck stops and the nicer independents have private showers that are cleaned and sanitized after each use. Expect to be reminded of the bathroom in a small motel. Showers are generally free with a minimal fuel purchase (usually 50 gallons) and a non-fueler can shower for about seven bucks. Don't be surprised if you have to wait in line to shower if you do it in the evening.

Where do I eat?
Truck stops almost always have decent food. You'll find everything from fast food to elaborate buffets. Be careful what you eat, though. It's easy to end up gaining a LOT of weight while eating all that buttered cornbread, mashed 'taters, pork chops, and chocolate pie and sitting on your butt all day driving. I learned the hard way. Lordy! What a gut I've grown. Don't stop in the middle of the day and sit down for a meal. That uses up valuable time. Grab a sandwich to go if you must and eat your big meal in the evening after you're done. Then, go take a walk and burn a few calories. It's working for me.

What if I get sick on the road?
Most truck stops will allow you to drop your trailer on their lot and go visit a doctor. Some don't allow this. You may need to call a cab. Look in the Yellow Pages for a walk-in clinic and then call ahead to make sure it's okay to show up with a bobtail truck. Most clinics don't mind at all. If you're deathly ill of course, you'll probably want an ambulance anyway. My worst day was in 1987. I got food poisoning from a truck stop in North Carolina (no longer in business) and ended up in a hospital for one day and then flat on my back in the sleeper for two more. I almost died. Thanks to ex-wife #2, a very good Virginia hospital and the Lord above I pulled through. I didn't know a stomach could hurt that badly. I've only been ill on the road one other time, and that was a particularly bad case of the flu. A clinic I visited prescribed me a bottle of pills, my boss made arrangements for a late delivery with the customer, and all went well enough. Getting sick on the road is never fun, but it doesn't have to be a disaster.

Is it all worth it?
I can't answer that question for you. It's been good for me, but we're all unique people (Some of us are "more unique" than others). You may try it and love it, or you may decide that trucking just isn't for you. You may decide that you like to drive a truck but don't like being gone from home. In that event there are plenty of local driving jobs to be had, although some of them have weird working hours. If you have family at home, and especially if you have small children, give it a lot of thought before jumping into trucking. Can your spouse deal with your absence? I'd guess that at least two-thirds of cross-country truckers have been divorced at least once. This is a serious consideration. If you're single, or if your spouse wants to go along (team-driving is an option here), then it can be a boatload of fun. Take your camera. Buy postcards and send'em to Mom and Dad (yours, not mine!). Savor and remember each and every day on the road, and drink in the sights you see in your travels. Trucking ain't easy, but if you love the road, life can be good behind the wheel of a semi.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Pics From Wolf Creek Pass

All images copyright 2006 by Alan Burkhart

Here are some pics I shot while driving over Wolf Creek Pass in Colorado (hwy 160) in September '06.