The Real Poop
Life is a highway. You want to ride it. All night long.
It's the freedom of the road. Inside the prison of a cabin. It's about heading out on the freeway. With potentially nowhere to go. It's about jawin' with buddies on the cell (or CB radio in the old days). Or the sonorous, endless white noise humming of tires on concrete, that will make one feel as if they're being tortured at Guantanomo.
The life of a trucker can be an awesome one if you're cut out for the road. There's really decent money, a sense of freedom on many fronts (Wanna drive naked? Go ahead—who will know?), and a feeling of connection with the core fabric of commerce on this continent (N. America, that is, in case you're reading this in Sydney).
Lives of truckers begin with some very basic education—"turn left, turn right"—basically your driver's ed exam but on steroids. Or poppers—caffeine pills famously taken by truckers in an attempt to stay awake driving at night. Ever thought about having to back up an 18-wheeler?
If you turn the wheel to the right, the truck's butt end goes left when you're backing up—but if you turn too far, the truck kind of accordion crunches upon itself and all kinds of bad things happen—from tires ripping on the road to the connection buckles...buckling. So there's a deep sense of feel and touch in maneuvering these giant elephants around. Especially in city traffic when some mean or just plain clueless driver doesn't realize that you have to make a wide turn around the left hand signal—and he cuts you off.
Luckily for you, in a collision, biggest car wins and, well, you're the bomb in that department.
Truckers are held to a higher standard, however. So more than a collision or two and your career as a truck driver is pretty much over. Same deal with traffic tickets or other violations. Seem harsh? Why should you be held to more difficult strictures than Joe Shmo Driver?
a) Trucks are big fat things on the road which can do enormous damage if they plow into other things.
b) Trucks carry expensive stuff; if they have accidents or problems, the costs are way more than just the ticket.
c) The world is competitive—lots of people want to drive trucks—so the companies that hire truckers can afford to be...picky.
d) All of the above.
Trucking divides into two broad categories: Independent and Union. There is some overlap between the two; i.e., you can be an independent trucker (not working for some large company) and still be a member of a trucking union, the Teamsters being arguably the most famous. If you're a member of Teamsters and you guys aren't especially in love with your current benefits package, you might strike until the company relents and gives you what you feel is fair. Fair warning—your arms will get tired holding up those signs. Big businesses aren't famous for caving on day one.
Independent truckers are just what they sound like—they are a lone guy or gal (but usually a guy) who wants to earn a nice living...driving a truck. He's his own boss. And he services his clients hauling everything from refrigerated lettuce to compressed liquid hydrogen in special round containers all over the country. He has to make his own work—that is, if clients aren't around to pay him to haul stuff, he just…sits. Saves on gas, but…no income. Bad.
Many indie truckers spend the lion's share of their driving time marketing their services. They have leads generated by...someone. Spouse? Family member? Buddy from their bowling league? And they agree to deliver 40,000 lettuce heads from Salinas, CA, to Omaha, NE, by Sunday for $4,000. That's a dime a head if you missed math class today.
What happens if the truck has a flat tire and the heads don't get there? What happens if the refrigeration unit breaks and they spoil? What happens if there is a ton of traffic and the truck gets there late?
Well, usually all of these elements are spelled out in a relatively simple contract—and in order to win the business, in most cases the independent trucker takes on all of the liability of failure himself. If any of these bad things happen, he loses some or all of the 4 grand he was going to make doing this haul. In some cases, he also owes the grocery store a ton of lettuce. It's enough to make you toss your salad.
So independent trucking is risky financially.
In the case of indies, however, a good trucker can make a few hundred thousand dollars in a year if times are good. That is, he is fully booked with lots of 3-day, $4,000 deliveries. Make a hundred of those in a year and that's $400,000 in revenues. He might have $100,000 in expenses for fuel (diesel, usually), wear and tear on tires, food, XM Satellite, and butt cushions.
Very nice money for a guy who likely didn't graduate high school, or at least wasn't exactly in danger of being valedictorian.
But on the other side, there can be years where he makes...squat.
A truck driver who works for a major trucking company has the opposite picture—he makes a base salary and then gets paid per mile, sort of like a "bonus." And a decent employee working lots of trucking hours can make $70k or even more in a year. It's a lot less risk than being an indie—and as an employee he didn't have to buy his own truck. Or insure it. Or pay to maintain it. But he does have to stay in good health. Most large trucking companies have the right to fire drivers on the spot and literally make them spend their own money to fly home if, after a stop at a medical check-up depot, their blood pressure and other core physical things aren't up to snuff.
You can imagine the anger of the driver who then has to spend his own money to fly home, "fired" like this—but you can also get the perspective of the company who hired him. They are wealthy, and some slick lawyer would just love to go after their deep financial pockets should a driver have a heart attack, swerve and kill some innocent bystander while pulling into a Safeway. The lawyer would just have to point out to the jury that this trucking company, Greedy Jerks Are Us, Inc., forced this poor man to drive endlessly, causing his heart attack, and now they owe $14 million for the bystander's life.
Too risky for the company. Too risky for the bystander. So the health standards are a big deal and a surprisingly large percentage (between 2 and 3) of truckers fail physicals each year. Well, maybe it's not that surprising—they don't get a lot of exercise sitting in a truck. Don't be fooled by their svelte physiques.