The Hidden Lives Of Long-Haul Truckers

Guests

Dan Hanson, fleet manager, Q Carriers
Steve Russell, vice president at large, American Trucking Associations

Few outside the trucking world understand the complicated lives of long-haul truckers. Drivers must contend with fuel regulations, aggressive drivers and delivery deadlines, not to mention the personal challenges of long stints on the road.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Maybe this has happened to you: You're driving down the highway. You have to pass a big rig, but you can't because another truck is in front of you and won't accelerate.

Or maybe a truck surges past you, cutting you off just before a merge. Cue the road rage, some colorful language, maybe you even reach out of a window, hand equipped with an indecent gesture.

When the whale of a semi surges past your minnow-sized car, it may not be your first instinct to consider the person in the cab. Dan Hanson, a fleet manager in Belle Plaine, Minnesota, wrote a piece for the Minneapolis Star Tribune explaining that there may be a lot of things going on in that driver's life, things you may not realize.

There are speed requirements and fuel regulations, delivery deadlines, not to mention personal issues that creep up during long stints on the road. Truck drivers, what's your life like on the road? Tell us your story. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we go to the next Freshman Read of the TALK OF THE NATION reading list, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." Rebecca Skloot will join us. But first, the lives of long-haul truckers. Dan Hanson is a fleet manager at Q Carriers. It's a cross-country freight moving company based in Belle Plaine, Minnesota. His piece for the Star Tribune was called "That Truck Driver You Flipped Off, Let Me Tell You His Story." Dan Hanson joins us from a studio in Eagan, Minnesota. Welcome to the program.

DAN HANSON: Thank you.

ROBERTS: So, in your piece, you talk about one of your drivers, a man you named Harold, who is having a particularly bad day on the day you wrote this piece. Is that what inspired you to put pen to paper?

HANSON: My inspiration comes every day. The original title of this story was "Just Another Day." It happens to my drivers every day, every week, and it's not just my drivers. Harold was representative of the blue-collar people in this country that make it what it is.

ROBERTS: And you tell the stories of some of the sort of daily annoyances for a truck driver, but in this particular case, Harold is also hearing news of the death of his only sister, whose funeral he probably can't attend.

HANSON: At the time he got the news, he was headed in the opposite direction. Everybody in our building went together once he let us know, and we got him turned around, and he did eventually make the funeral.

ROBERTS: As of this morning, the last time I checked, the piece on the Star Tribune website has 514 comments. Did that surprise you?

HANSON: Yes. It touched a lot of people.

ROBERTS: Yeah. Well, give us a sense of the range of some of the comments.

HANSON: You know, the ones that got my attention were the ones that were in support of Harold and the people in his situation. The one that really got my attention was a lady offering to pay his $500 weekly salary to help him get home.

ROBERTS: Those were the nice ones. There were plenty more that were less nice, even ones that sort of started with: I'm so sorry Harold had a bad day, but get out of the left lane, stop cutting me off. You know, I'm sorry you're having a lousy day. I'm having one, too. You've got to respect the small drivers. What was your reaction to those?

HANSON: I think that was a good point, you know, to bring up. When I wrote the story, I wasn't really considering anybody but Harold and his situation, but I have been behind the trucks that are holding me up. I understand their frustration.

ROBERTS: You know, it was interesting, going through those comments, there was a lot of discussion - it seems that the thing that frustrates non-truck drivers the most is that two trucks on a two-lane highway, you know, one's trying to pass the other, neither is going particularly fast. The car who wants to pass both of them can't, because they're trapped behind.

Why does that happen? It's tempting as a car driver to think that it's truck drivers doing it on purpose to mess with you.

HANSON: I don't think that happens that much. Typically, what it is, is one truck comes up behind another. The road's clear around him. He moves out to pass. Because of a hill, because of weight of pulling, maybe the truck that was in the right lane accelerated a little bit.

Most of these trucks are governed, and you get side by side, even the wind coming off the truck on the right-hand lane can slow down the truck in the left-hand lane once he gets even with him.

ROBERTS: Well, explain what that means, that the truck is governed.

HANSON: It means that they are regulated for speed. The fuel going into the motor is injected in such a way that the truck is only capable of, typically, 67 to 69 miles an hour.

ROBERTS: And why is that, if the speed limit can be higher than that?

HANSON: Mostly, it's for fuel, maybe half-and-half fuel usage and safety. It's to keep trucks from running over the speed limit.

ROBERTS: So if your truck is governed at, say, 67, and you want to pass a truck that's governed at 64, it could take a few miles.

HANSON: It could, yes, especially if you encounter a hill during the pass.

ROBERTS: We are talking about the lives of long-haul truckers here on TALK OF THE NATION. Our number is 800-989-8255. And let's take a call from Bear(ph). He's driving right now on I-85 in South Carolina. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

BEAR: Well, thank you very much.

ROBERTS: I hope you're using a hands-free device.

BEAR: I have a headset. I would never talk any other way.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROBERTS: Excellent. So where are you headed?

BEAR: Actually, I'm about 20 miles away from delivering my load. And then I'm going to try to get home to take care of business, because there's a hurricane heading there, and I'm not there.

ROBERTS: And how long does that whole loading-unloading process take? Is that usually pretty smooth?

BEAR: It'll take me about an hour and a half to get it to unload. I'm a specialized bulk hauler. So it doesn't take me very long compared to a van, big-box van driver, where they have to unload it with a forklift or something. All I have to do is pull a lever, and it goes up in the air and dumps out the end. But all the preparation work beforehand and afterwards ends up to be about an hour and a half.

ROBERTS: And Bear, how long have you been driving?

BEAR: Forty-two years.

ROBERTS: Really? So you must have seen a lot of changes in the industry.

BEAR: A lot of changes, good and bad.

ROBERTS: Like what?

BEAR: Well, I think there's been a lot of the good changes in the technology, in the training, although I think a lot of the schools now have ended up being assembly lines, which are not good. But there are still some very good training schools out there.

And it used to be, when I started driving, all you had to do was pay $5 and get a chauffer's license, and you were legally able to drive a truck, and you could go out and get in one and do your best.

At least now, they get a basic education on the regulations, on truck handling and, you know, have a little bit of skill before they get out there and enter into an apprenticeship program with a company. That's one of the good things. The technology's good.

However, I think a lot of the new regulations and rules, I think, are hurting the industry. They're making it tougher for drivers to make a living. They're making it tougher for companies to survive, especially smaller companies. You know, I think the bureaucratic process for the trucking industry has really harmed it, in many ways.

ROBERTS: Well, Bear, thank you so much for calling in. I'm glad you're close to your drop-off, and we appreciate you joining us here on TALK OF THE NATION.

BEAR: Well, thank you very much. Have a good day.

ROBERTS: So the - he referred to regulations, which we'll get into a little bit further later with Steve Russell. But he also talked about the training aspect of this. How hard is it to become a truck driver, Dan Hanson?

HANSON: To get in Q Carriers, you need two years of verifiable, over-the-road experience. We don't take newbies, trainees, and I'm not familiar with what a person would go through in a school situation. There is a lot more to it than there used to be. Bear made a good point about the technology.

When I started in this industry, our technology was a notebook, a pencil and a pocket full of dimes. Now we have satellite communications. We have GPS. There's cell phones in the trucks. Drivers are able to call their customers directly while they're on the move. Things have improved greatly with technology.

ROBERTS: And what about in terms of keeping track of your hours and making sure you're sticking by the regulations of, for instance, how many hours consecutively you can drive without a break?

HANSON: They have changed the rules to 11 hours driving with a 10-hour break. The 11 hours has to be completed within a 14-hour people. The only thing that stops your 14-hour clock once you start it is another 10-hour break. So once you start your day, you've got 14 hours to get your work done.

If you're held up at a shipper or a receiver and they burn up three, four, five of your hours, now you drive time is going away, and you won't get the miles you're supposed to that day. A driver really needs to average - I'm sorry.

ROBERTS: How is that monitored? Is that an honor system?

HANSON: It was when we ran paper logbooks. Q Carriers is now entirely electronic logs. Once the truck starts moving, the log automatically puts you on the drive line and keeps track of the time that you are working.

ROBERTS: So you can't fudge it.

HANSON: No.

ROBERTS: And do you have enough drivers at Q Carriers? Are you looking to hire, or do you have more drivers than you can have work for?

HANSON: There's no such thing as enough drivers.

ROBERTS: Really?

HANSON: Never has been.

ROBERTS: It's a chronic shortage?

HANSON: Good drivers have always been hard to find.

ROBERTS: Why is that, do you think?

HANSON: It's not a life that everybody can live. You have to have a pretty special mentality to stay with it. You have to be able to raise your family from 1,000 miles away. And it is the loneliest job there is.

ROBERTS: What about it is appealing?

HANSON: You are your own boss out there. You decide how to do things. For me, I like driving, and so I found a job that would pay me to do it.

ROBERTS: How old were you when you started driving?

HANSON: I took my first driving job when I was 17 with a cab company and worked my way up through straight trucks until I got into semis.

ROBERTS: Do you think what a - you know, a teenage guy wants out of driving is different than what someone like Bear, who's been at it for 42 years, is doing it for?

HANSON: I would imagine, yeah. They're looking at the freedom of the road and the independence and not having a boss breathing over your shoulder.

ROBERTS: Is that a real thing, the freedom of the road? I mean, give me a sense of what that's like. Is that just a myth?

HANSON: No, no. There is a lot of freedom. You decide your route. You decide when to start and stop, more or less. You are the boss. It is your business. You run it as a business, and how well you run your business determines if you're profitable or not.

ROBERTS: And when you're alone in a truck and you haven't talked to anybody or seen anybody in miles, do you get inside your own head, in a way?

BEAR: Very much so. Yup, very much. It's pretty easy to be influenced by what's going on around you, too.

ROBERTS: Yeah. My guest is Dan Hanson, he's a fleet manager for Q Carriers in Belle Plaine, Minnesota, and we are talking about the life of a long-haul trucker. And we want to hear from you, especially if you're a trucker and you are on the road and you can safely give us a call.

Tell us what we don't understand about your life. Tell us your story. 800-989-8255 is the number to call. You can also drop us an email. The address is talk@npr.org. Or you can join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Rebecca Roberts. This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBERTS: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts. We're talking about long-haul truckers. There are around three-and-a-half million truck drivers in the United States, according to the American Trucking Association. But if you've never driven a big rig, chances are you don't know much about those who do.

So, truck drivers, what's your life like on the road? Our number is 800-989-8255. And our email address is talk@npr.org. Our guest is Dan Hanson. He's fleet manager for Q Carriers in Belle Plaine, Minnesota. He wrote a piece earlier this month for the Star Tribune called "That Truck Driver You Flipped Off, Let Me Tell You His Story."

We're also joined now by Steve Russell. He's joining us from a studio at WFYI Public Media in Indianapolis. He's the CEO of Celadon Trucking in Indianapolis. Parked end-to-end, all of his company's trucks would stretch nearly from Indianapolis to Louisville, Kentucky. Steve Russell, welcome to the program.

STEVE RUSSELL: Thank you very much, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: What don't the rest of us understand about what your drivers do?

RUSSELL: Let me sort of summarize the life of an over-the-road driver. Salary is pretty good. Our average driver makes probably 45, $46,000 a year, pre-tax. And the lifestyle is a challenge because we're a long-haul company, as the ones that you were just talking to.

In other words, the typical length of haul from the pickup to delivery is about 900 miles. So they don't get home that often, you know, because basically they might go from Indiana to Denver, Colorado, and then Denver to Mississippi or wherever.

And as a consequence, the typical over-the-road driver perhaps gets home four or five nights a month. And our average driver is 48 years old, because a 25-year-old or a 30-year-old wouldn't want to be away from home that much. At 48, you've got grandkids, not little kids.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: Basically - excuse me. Basically, the lifestyle is one of independence, meeting folks at truck stops, but basically a relatively lonely job. And that point is very valid. From a health standpoint, we have a program at Celadon where we literally put drivers, if they wish, on truck-stop-friendly diets and things like that.

If you walk around a tractor-trailer - that's a tractor that's about 25 feet long and a trailer that's 53 feet long - if you walk around a tractor-trailer 50 times, which will take you about a half hour, you've just walked two miles. Keep eating what you were eating, and you'll get healthier. But it's a challenging life because of the stuff like that.

ROBERTS: You know, we heard from Bear that regulations have frustrated him over the 42 years he's been driving. You also serve as vice-president-at-large for the American Trucking Association.

Earlier this year, the Obama administration announced new fuel economy rules for heavy vehicles. Tractor-trailer trucks will have to get 20 percent more miles per gallon by 2018. What do you make of the new standards and changing regulations?

RUSSELL: The new fuel standards, if that's achieved, will be very good for the industry. But there have been other changes that have had mixed reviews. A program started in December of '10 called CSA 2010. And what that is, is that - to run a semi, you have to have a state-issued CDL. If you live in Salinas, you get one in Kansas. If you live in Indianapolis, you get one in Indiana, et cetera.

And up to December of 2010, you were managed based on that state's rules. If you had two speeding tickets, you might be suspended for three months, or whatever. Beginning in December 2010, the federal government is now managing the report card for each of those three-and-a-half million drivers, and that report card is based on how the driver's doing in various categories.

One is vehicle maintenance. So if they're driving a seven or eight-year-old truck, they're going to get a lot of dings on their report card. If they are fooling around with their logs rather than being appropriate, they basically will get dings on their report card.

If they have a very bad report card, the company they work for will fire that person, because each company has a report card, as well, that's equal to the average of all of their drivers.

But what's happened is it's made each driver much more aware. It's actually made the roads safer, but it's done it at a great challenge and a great cost. If there's a fatality, for example, and it's caused by the trucking company, the shipper can get sued now because the shipper could have gone on the DOT website and seen the rating for that - CSA rating for that carrier.

So if it had a bad rating, the plaintiff attorney can go after the shipper, as well as the carrier. So a lot of impacts of this, and to a driver, it's very - many of them don't want to drive old trucks anymore.

Our average truck is 2.1 years old, which basically means, to a driver, he'd rather work for a company with a young truck than an old one because of CSA ratings. But it measures - it measures driver fatigue, measures whether they're not being honest in my logs. We put on these EOBRs, electronic on-board recorders, in the past six months because it takes that issue away from the driver.

But it's a tough life, and it's a life where - and I saw a statistic about this about a year ago at the ATA, that something like 70 percent of accidents - and don't me literally, Rebecca - but a major piece of accidents with trucks, with semis, were actually caused by passenger cars, because passenger cars can move around much more rapidly and quickly than a truck.

ROBERTS: I want to include some of our callers in this conversation, because we have several of them. Here is Marco in San Antonio. Marco, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

MARCO: Hello.

ROBERTS: Hi, Marco. You're on the air.

MARCO: Oh, OK. Thank you for taking my call. I'm a truck driver, and I've been doing this for seven years, but I have a question for you. Actually, I have a few comments, and I don't know if I will have the opportunity to mention them all. But anyway, my primary question is: a few months after I started truck driving, eventually I realized that I had a urinary problem. I had to constantly, you know, urinate. And eventually, I found out that's a common problem among truck drivers.

And I found out that's an enlargement of the prostate. And I wanted to ask if especially the gentlemen that you're interviewing, if he happens to know of a procedure that is a medical procedure that is available for that, you know.

ROBERTS: Okay, Marco, let's ask him. Steve Russell, in terms of health options that are specifically geared towards issues that might be a result of driving a long way, what answer do you have from Marco?

MARCO: I can't give a legitimate medical answer. I don't know the answer to that. But many drivers do carry - they used to call them motorman's pals. They're trucker's pals, which give them the ability to stop and, frankly, urinate while staying on the truck, because to stop, you know, it might take him 20 minutes until he finds the next truck stop or things like that. It's one of the challenges of the business.

ROBERTS: I imagine there are complaints, Steve Russell and Dan Hanson, both of you, Dan Hanson let's start with you, that you regularly hear from drivers, you know, stiff backs, sore knees. Are there health risks that drivers regularly face, Dan?

HANSON: Absolutely. They're spending 11 hours at a time sitting. It's going to be hard on your circulation, on your lower back, your lower body, and the harder run that you have, the less time that you have to get places, the less change you have to park that truck and get out and walk around it.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Art in Orlando. Art, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ART: Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

ROBERTS: Sure.

ART: Hello?

ROBERTS: Yeah, go ahead, Art. You're on the air.

ART: Yeah, no, my thing is I drive double-48-foot trailers on the Turnpike here in Florida, and my pet peeve is that, I don't know, people think that because we have 34 wheels, we can come to a stop when they cut in front of us. And, you know, that just doesn't happen.

I mean, my tractor and trailers is 130 feet long. I can't stop on a dime, and that's my problem.

ROBERTS: So Art, if you've - you've now got a microphone on a national radio show. If you've got advice for drivers, things that they need to pay attention to to make sure you can drive safely, what's your number one piece of advice to people who aren't in a truck?

ART: Stay away from the trucks.

ROBERTS: Stay away from you, all right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ART: Just stay away from the trucks and don't jump in front of them, because we cannot stop, not to mention the wheels next to us, they love to hang out by our wheels. I don't know why. They must like to see the shiny wheels spinning. And if that wheel blows out, it will kill them, and they don't realize that. Just stay away from the trucks.

Either pass us, way ahead of us, or stay behind us. The best place for you is behind us, not in front of us, because if something wrong in front of us, guess who's going to get crushed? You are.

ROBERTS: Art, thank you for your call. So there is a lot that - just the physics of being a small car behind a big truck, it's hard to know exactly when the driver can see you. Do you have advice, Dan Hanson, for a driver of making sure that the truck driver is aware of where you are?

HANSON: Absolutely. If you can't see the driver and his mirror, he can't see you. If you're going to pass a truck, if you come up behind it, my recommendation is to increase your speed so that you can move past it steadily. Give it several car lengths in front before you move back in, and stay ahead of them. The worst thing you can do is to move in front of a truck and then back out.

ROBERTS: We have an email from Paul in Orange Park, Florida, who's a retired truck driver after 13 years of commercial driving for a grocery company. He says: The thing that sticks out most in my mind is the necessity for professional truck drivers to be constantly vigilant every second they're on the road. Commercial drivers are almost always held accountable, to some degree, in any traffic mishap. The stress of constant vigilance is exhausting. When you stretch that constant vigilance out over 900 miles of road, Steve Russell, I imagine that it gets kind of stressful.

RUSSELL: Well, the driver is allowed to drive 11 hours, and then must take a 10-hour break. So if you assume - I mean, our trucks could go as fast as 65 miles an hour. But if you assume 50-mile-an-hour average, you know, in 11 hours, they could do 450, 500 miles, something like that, but - when you consider breaks. But certainly, it's - vigilance is required, completely required, and something that is critical. One of the things that has challenge - more challenge in the U.S. than it is in Europe, in Europe, if somebody drives in the left lane and is going slower than the speed limit, they can get a ticket. That's not true in America.

And therefore, if you're on a two - like the road between Indianapolis and Chicago, I-65, it's two lanes on each side. If you have a passenger car driving slowly in the left side, that's very frustrating to a driver, and there's very little he can do about it. So there are challenges that probably could be fixed with some tweaking of the laws.

ROBERTS: Well, you know, right back at you, says Daniel from Nashville, Tennessee. He says: Regarding being trapped behind trucks on the freeway, it happens all the time - all the time. It's frustrating. It's my number one driving frustration. I live on Interstate 40. And when 40 is two lanes in one direction, it's quite common.

RUSSELL: Yup.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call. This is Ralph in Michigan. Ralph, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

RALPH: How are you? Thank you very much for taking my call. First-time caller, I listen to your station all the time. Some of the things that they didn't pick up on is - like here in Michigan. They have a split speed limit here, where cars (technical difficulties) 70 miles an hour (technical difficulties) only go 60 miles (technical difficulties) its own (technical difficulties) is being a truck driver out here, is it's on - road range, because trucks have (technical difficulties).

ROBERTS: Ralph, I'm afraid we have lost your phone call there, Ralph. I apologize. You are listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. We have an email from Turk(ph) in Charlotte. It says: I drove from L.A. to Charlotte a couple of times. I always feel like 18-wheelers are big brothers. We also have Pat in Sierra Vista, Arizona, who says: As a bicyclist, I'm always treated much better on the road by professional drivers in big rigs than by other drivers.

And Catherine in North Carolina says: I just want to say that car drivers who get in a hurry and have no respect for trucks have no idea how their impatience can affect someone's life. My husband's a truck driver. He had a lane-change accident because he could not see the car, which was in his blind spot. He was put on investigative leave for six months and then terminated when he filed for unemployment a month ago. He had a good driving record until this happened. Car drivers, think before you try to race with a trucker.

And, Dan Hanson, you said that there's never enough truck drivers, so I imagine that they are only fired when you feel that that - if that's the only option remaining. What does it take to lose your job as a trucker?

HANSON: Oh, it's pretty easy to lose your job, but I would think there's more drivers that quit than, really, that get fired. A guy who works hard enough to get into a truck and qualify - we don't fire them easily. Q Carriers, we're out of Shakopee, Minnesota. We go through a lot of work with our guys that struggle in certain areas to help them through them and become better drivers. People that aren't good drivers don't generally make it to a long-haul company.

RUSSELL: The - this is Steve. The other factors that, exactly as Dan is saying, that a good long-haul driver qualified one - and I - we've had some that have worked for the company over 20 years. It's a great opportunity to do well financially. It's a meaningful contribution to the economy of America, and the happy ones are happy, and the happy ones are good.

ROBERTS: Well, I'll ask you each the same question I asked our last caller, which is if you have a piece of advice for drivers who want to say safe on the road and share the road with truckers, what is - what do you want to tell drivers? Steve Russell, let's start with you.

RUSSELL: I think Dan's point about if you can't see the driver, the driver can't see you is very valid. And I think it's important to realize that the truck has less flexibility on the road. The truck is, you know, a 24-foot cab and a 53-foot trailer, or in the case of the fellow who called in who moves two 48-foot trailers, they're much longer than a car and they don't have the flexibility of a car. And if the passenger car driver keeps that in mind, I think it really will eliminate many issues that occur.

ROBERTS: Dan Hanson?

HANSON: I think the best thing that a motorist can do to protect themselves around trucks is to just give them as much room as possible, stay as far away as you can. If you're going - if you're coming off an on ramp, getting on the freeway and you're going three or four miles, there's really no point to try and pass every vehicle on the road you can before you come back across and get off. I think that causes more problems than a lot.

ROBERTS: Let me ask you one quick question. We're almost out of time. When you see a bad driver or a driver who frustrates you, often there's an 800 number on the back of a truck. Does calling that do anything, Dan Hanson?

HANSON: We do get calls in to our safety department. And when we do get the calls in, we contact the driver immediately. And usually, they're - I wouldn't say valid, but the driver is in the position, and the driver will usually tell us what the problem was before we tell them what the report was. And it's usually a misunderstanding. People are - people take their frustrations out on the road with them. And if somebody holds you up, you tend to take it out on them.

ROBERTS: Dan Hanson is a fleet manager for Q Carriers. You can find a link to his piece in the Star Tribune at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. He joined us from a studio in Minnesota. Thanks so much for your time.

HANSON: Thank you.

ROBERTS: And Steve Russell, the CEO of Celadon Trucking Services in Indianapolis, he joined us from WFYI Public Media in Indianapolis. Thanks to you.

RUSSELL: Thank you, Rebecca.

ROBERTS: Coming up, Freshman Reads with Rebecca Skloot. I'm Rebecca Roberts. It's TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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