Within days of taking off in the truck for the first time, I began to notice some profound problems within the trucking industry. They aren’t hard to see, nearly everyone I have spoken with in and around the industry have characterized the topics I will talk about here in various ways. These are issues that are difficult to identify outside of the industry, but are glaring if you have spent any amount of time on the road in recent years. If you’re saying to yourself, “I really don’t really care about the trucking industry, Erika, I want more posts about your crazy adventures,” I hear you. I promise we will return to our regularly scheduled programming. In order to understand some aspects of my experience driving however, some background knowledge will be beneficial.
71.4% of all freight is moved over the road, according to this report from the American Trucking Association (ATA). This is how parts and packaging for various goods get moved from factories and warehouses around the country to produce other goods. This is how foods and other essential and non-essential products get to your grocery stores, malls, and on your front porch in an Amazon box. As a society we have collectively developed a culture based on consumerism. We can walk into any grocery store and buy out of season produce, goods manufactured in countries halfway around the world, made of materials mass produced in factories at incredibly low prices. Good, bad, or ugly, this is the current way of things. Most of us don’t think about how those things got on that shelf, or how that package got on your doorstep, I certainly didn’t put much thought into it previously. However, in a bid to become a more responsible consumer I am attempting to A) understand where the things I buy are coming from, and B) what it took to get that thing into my hands. Before I got acquainted with the trucking industry, I didn’t understand just how crucial it is to this process. I also didn’t understand how fine a line the industry is walking to keep the flow of goods moving.
“Every industry in this country would crumble if trucks stopped moving today,” John told me the other day as we were cruising down the highway. “But it takes a lot to keep trucks moving.
Truckers used to have more pride in their driving. They had a community around them, they would talk on the CB going down the road more. Maybe if they saw someone had a flat tire another driver would probably help them change it.
Everyone is isolated now. Isolation makes you lose touch with your surroundings. Like before it would be like, ‘This guy in front of me is the guy I’ve been talking to for the past 2 hours, I know things about his life, he’s my buddy.’ Now it’s more about ‘This guy in front of me just cut me off – what a dick.’ You’re making up this dialogue for the people around you which can be really negative. It’s just how you deal with all the pressures, logging time electronically, worrying about parking, trucking is more stressful than it used to be.”
I’ve spoken to some older drivers as well who would attest to this notion that trucking is more isolating than it used to be.
I could spend a lot of time here talking about the industry on a broad scale, and that may be a topic for future post. Right now I want to focus on the human, or possibly the inhumane, aspects of driving a truck. While there is lots of talk of self driving trucks in future, currently to keep trucks rolling and goods moving there has to be a person sitting behind the wheel. Unfortunately, there is a well documented and widespread truck driver shortage. There simply aren’t enough drivers to keep up with the freight demands, and there are several key contributing factors to this problem.
According to that ATA report from 2019 on the driver shortage, “(Driving) is not just a career, but a lifestyle that does not fit with everyone’s desires or needs.” As a driver, you work long hours and are away from your home and family for days or even weeks at a time in some cases. If that truck isn’t rolling, you aren’t making money. Trucking companies need to keep the truck moving to keep up with freight demands, so there is really no reason to incentivize drivers to stay home more. On the other hand, the current job market is such that there are plenty of more desireable jobs open in other industries, jobs that may be more appealing to people with families who want to be at home more. A quick Google search will tell you all you need to know about how truck drivers are commonly perceived.
Campaigns like Trucking Moves America Forward are trying to improve this negative perception. The reality is that most people in the market for a new career may not be immediately willing to jump into a job where they are not only alone on the road, they are ostracized from society in many ways. Truthfully, I can’t blame people for not wanting to be associated with it. On the road you see many unsavory things; from the abundant trash dumped along on-ramps and around truck parking lots, to bags and bottles filled with human waste, to illegal activities at truck stops, there are some good reasons the public might be less than welcoming of truck drivers.
Even once you get drivers in the door, or in the seat as it were, getting them to stay there is a whole other challenge. There is a popularly cited statistic that 35% of new drivers quit in the first 90 days. I couldn’t find the original study to confirm the methods of data collection, but I think you would have a hard time finding someone in the industry who would find this number wildly inaccurate. Beyond that, that ATA report cites an 89% turnover rate for trucking companies. That means that 89 out of 100 drivers are not staying with their company from year to year. Whether they quit driving altogether, they go to another company that will pay them better or perhaps offer them a sign-on bonus, or they retire, that is an incredibly high level of churn.
Speaking of retirement, the average driver age for over-the-road (long haul) trucking is 46. Replacing boomers who are retiring will account for half of all new hires over the next decade. (Ask yourself here: If that gap isn’t filled, will it be possible to meet increasing freight demands in the coming decade?) And you see it. There are a lot of older guys (and some women) on the road, not so many younger faces. Attracting younger drivers is proving difficult however, and the social isolation and negative public perception of truckers are not the only reasons.
The nature of trucking makes staying healthy incredibly difficult. You may be on the clock for 14 hours, sitting in the seat driving for 11. That leaves very little time in the day for things like exercise and preparing food. It’s a physically demanding job. You are sitting in a seat in the same position for 11 hours a day which puts a lot of strain on the body. From my experience riding with John I have found that I have become extremely sedentary. Even when you are stopped somewhere, it is likely it is a less than ideal place to go out and walk or exercise. You are in industrial parks with a lot of heavy equipment which may be dangerous, or along a highway, or at a truck stop with trucks pulling in and out. Speaking of truck stops, the food options at these places leave a lot to be desired. It’s fast food. It’s convenience store foods. It’s a greasy restaurant. I have heard people say it is getting better, and I can attest that I do see places from time to time that offer some healthier options. But by and large, the best way to get some fresh food that’s not ultra processed, laden with added fats, sugar, and salt, is going to be preparing it yourself. When you’re driving 11 hours a day you can imagine how challenging this would be for many.
John and I have an electric pressure cooker which we can use rolling down the road to prepare a variety of foods, and I have really enjoyed experimenting with what I can use it for (including some failed experiments such as a birthday cake that turned into a dense, carrot cake flavored brick). Without the benefit of a live in chef however, for the month that I was out of the truck in trucking school, John ended of opting for fast food or whatever was available at the truck stop much more often, and this is the prevailing pattern I see in other drivers on the road. You can imagine the results.
According to this study from 2010, 69% of truck drivers were obese, making obesity among drivers twice as prevelant as for the general population. Now that was 10 years ago, and the demand for freight and the driver shortage crisis has only worsened since then. I have seen some more recent sources that put the number of obese drivers at anywhere between 53% and 85%. From that 2010 study, “61% [of drivers] reported having two or more of the risk factors: hypertension, obesity, smoking, high cholesterol, no physical activity, 6 or fewer hours of sleep per 24-hr period.” Poor diet combined with a highly sedentary lifestyle and an almost mandated irregular sleep pattern, results in some serious health consequences. If you add a shortened lifespan due to lifestyle factors to trucker deaths in accidents, it is without a doubt one of the most dangerous jobs out there, although to what extent it is difficult to say due to poor research and documentation. These are not the only negative health outcomes.
I cannot stress enough how important it is to consider mental health as a critical component of overall health. In my experience, time and again, I see the relationship between mental health and physical health, I don’t know if it is possible to have one without the other, and truckers are no exception. From this 2018 study, “[Truck drivers] overall health, and especially their mental health, is very often worse than the general population as a consequence of long driving shifts, disrupted sleep patterns, chronic fatigue, social isolation, compelling service duties, delivery urgency, job strain, low rewards, and unsystematic medical control.”
Disrupted sleep patterns are strongly linked to mental health disorders such as depression. As mentioned previously, irregular sleep patterns are practically mandated for the average trucker. Since you don’t work a regular shift, your delivery times may vary day to day, sometimes requiring you to deliver in the middle of the night, or start driving early in the morning, it’s not hard to understand why many drivers are getting an average of 5 hours of sleep a night. Sleep disorders are prevalant, and the use and abuse of various sleep aids or stimulants to keep you moving is also well documented. Alcoholism is widespread, and the list of substances commonly abused include caffeine, amphetamines, thyroid hormones, and cocaine. Obesity, poor sleep, and substance abuse are all linked to higher rates of anxiety and depression, and all these aspects impact the likelihood of an accident in turn.
Out on the road you see these realities clear as day. Drivers with drawn, gaunt looks. Drivers who are extremely overweight. Drivers who avoid socialization and drivers who don’t seem like they are quite all there. It’s sad. And it’s part of the reason John and I have committed to only being in trucking for a few years. There are many benefits to driving. The pay is good, you have a concrete sense of freedom and autonomy over your life and career that is difficult to find in other jobs. But the risks are impossible to ignore, evidenced by the many times John and I say to each other, “Look at that guy… he’s been on the road too long.”
I highly recommend you watch this YouTube video for some personal testimonies of how challenging this job can be mentally and emotionally.
I bring these issues to light primarily because, just a few months ago, I had no idea how desperate the situation for drivers was. This is an issue that impacts us all, and I firmly believe that problems can’t be solved if there is no awareness that they exist. Thank you for bearing with me as we challenge ourselves to expand our minds and fully utilize our abilities to be compassionate and rational beings.