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You see them everywhere. Eighteen-wheelers crowd the highways at all hours, they come rumbling through your neighborhood, and they have a mystique about them that has given rise to legends. The long-haul trucker has a solitary life, spending more time on the road than at home. It is isolated work with few interactions with others, except for the fraternity of other long-haul drivers at truck stops and weigh stations.
With 70 percent of all goods delivered by truck in North America, this is an extremely vital profession. Over three million people earn their living as truck drivers, according to 2000 government statistics, with another 209,000 drivers recorded in Canada in 1997. (Did you know that a truck crosses the United States–Canada border every three seconds?) Over 90 percent of truck drivers work for companies, and some 32 percent of those companies are involved in moving goods to wholesale and retail outlets. The remaining drivers work in other fields, such as construction and manufacturing.
To be considered a long-haul trucker, your vehicle has to be 26,000 gross vehicle weight. The size goes up from there, and each size has its own design and safety features.
Advancement in this profession occurs gradually. You may start out driving smaller trucks or work as a substitute driver before receiving your first long-distance run. With experience comes regular work and then more prestigious trucks or routes. Your compensation goes up accordingly. A handful of drivers will shift from behind the wheel to behind a desk, working for the company as a dispatcher or trip planner. Others leave for entirely different careers. Elvis Presley started driving a truck before leaving to become a musician.
Truck drivers are usually members of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. This union helps negotiate the best possible wages and benefits for drivers and looks after issues of driver and vehicle safety. There are some specialized fields that require drivers to belong to those related unions instead of the Teamsters.
A typical driver will report to a terminal or warehouse (also known as a distribution center). He or she will inspect the vehicle, making sure it is in good working order and has fresh oil and gas. Brakes, horn, windshield wiper blades, and all the working parts are checked because the driver has to depend upon the vehicle for the duration of the trip. He or she then checks for supplies such as first aid, flares, fire extinguisher, and basic maintenance tools. (As a courtesy to all drivers, given that long-haul truckers ride higher than most other vehicles, if they see a traffic problem, they are the ones to alert authorities.)
The driver then makes sure that the cargo has been properly loaded and secured. In some instances, drivers will help do the loading and unloading. Not only does it get the job done quicker, but the driver is assured of a properly packed vehicle. Shifting boxes could cause the truck to lose its balance or the material could be damaged. Once on the road, the driver follows a route, so it's important to be familiar with the roads. Many drivers prefer a handful of regular routes because they know how to get around traffic problems rather than flounder around in unfamiliar territory. Others like to get out and see the country and take a different route every time, if they're not required to take the quickest route.
Given the duration of the trip, some drivers work in tandem with a partner. Some trucks have a space in the back of the cab where the second driver can sleep or rest while the other one drives. More often, though, the driver is alone.
When he or she reaches the destination, which may be another warehouse or a retail store, the driver makes sure everything is properly unloaded and signed for. At that point, federal regulations call for the driver to fill out a report detailing the trip and noting any problems that occurred along the way.
Being a truck driver is long, grueling work. To avoid routine traffic, truck drivers tend to attack the longest portions of their route during the night, on weekends, and even during holidays. Despite improvements in truck design over the years, drivers still feel fatigue from the hours of constantly being alert and handling such a powerful vehicle. They are aided with ergonomic seating, and newer model trucks now have global positioning systems (GPS) installed, which means they can get updated, computerized map information in case of an unforeseen detour or traffic problem. The GPS systems also mean a better stream of communication between the trucker and his company, which alleviates some of the tedium. The company, in turn, has a better sense of where the truck is according to the schedule, how the vehicle is performing, and other vital pieces of information.
Drivers also contend now with computerized inventory tracking systems, which means a little extra work at the loading and unloading points. The customer and the trucking company need to know not only where the truck is but also where the cargo is, especially if the truck is making multiple deliveries. The equipment is similar to the scanning devices employed by overnight delivery services. The computer scans in the bar code and matches it against the order for that particular load. In trucks using refrigerator equipment, they have even developed voice recognition programs to improve efficiency.
A driver's day and week are governed by regulations as determined by the state and federal governments. For example, a driver may not work more than sixty hours during a seven-day period. Also, after every ten hours of driving, the driver must have eight hours off. Drivers are happy to be looked after but most push the limit of the laws in order to make schedules or log additional miles for higher pay.
There is a great deal of satisfaction derived from a job well done, and many truck drivers enjoy the work. Before pursuing this, though, you may want to think about whether or not being away from home, family, and friends is something that might bother you.
In the coming decade, the job outlook for truck drivers is fairly positive. The U.S. government estimates that there should be enough turnover to present opportunities. This prediction is based on the cases of drivers retiring, leaving the field, or moving to the front office of a company.
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