I drove 18-wheelers, cross-country and regional, from 2003 to 2018. Over 15 years, I logged more than 1 million accident-free miles, driving through 47 of the lower 48 states (somehow missing South Dakota).
I’ve hauled everything from bottled water, groceries, 45,000 pounds of paper and various hazmat loads, and Pier One Imports furniture, to NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon’s race car. I’ve had a police escort over the Mackinac Bridge into the Upper Peninsula in excessive windy conditions over a frozen Lake Michigan, and tires blow out from triple-digit heat and heavy loads on the way to Laredo, Texas, in August.
I’ve driven everything from a Freightliner with 10 forward gears, to a Kenworth with 13 forward gears and a Peterbilt with 18. I’ve hauled 80,000 pounds over Donner Pass (7,057-foot elevation) in the snow, Fancy Gap (2,894-foot elevation) in snow and ice, and Monteagle (1,923-foot elevation) in dense fog.
Absolutely nothing in my experience, however, comes even close to what professional drivers are enduring through coronavirus. Granted, conditions when I was on the road were rather Spartan compared with the accommodations most Americans enjoy, but it was a good fit for a great many military veterans, myself included. That, however, has all changed.
Coronavirus Has Made Truck Drivers’ Lives Very Difficult
Gone are the truck-stop diners and restaurants where truckers could have a hot meal and commiserate with other drivers. They are closed due to social distancing requirements. Truckers now do the best they can with “grab-and-go” cuisine, consisting mainly of cold, pre-packaged sandwiches or fast food where it is still available.
A great many rest areas, which professional drivers depend on when they’ve run out of hours and need a place to park and rest, are now closed, forcing already-exhausted drivers to continue their bleary-eyed search into the wee hours of the night. Would you want your loved one sleeping on the shoulder of an interstate highway late at night, and pray no one falls asleep at the wheel and crashes into him?
A few weeks ago, the Department of Transportation suspended its hours-of-service regulations for the first time since 1938 for truckers carrying medical supplies, consumer goods such as face masks, “immediate raw precursor” material such as paper, plastic, or alcohol, and other items used in manufacturing food and other essential supplies. In fact, limits on the number of hours driven per day or worked per week, as well as minimum required hours of rest, have been suspended.
Even the necessity to log driving hours, either electronically or via paper logbook, has been suspended. In short, everyone from the federal level on down has recognized the vital role the nation’s professional drivers play.
As the Wuhan coronavirus has spread across the country, what of the threat to truck drivers who must travel in and out of hotspots such as New York, and for whom the availability of necessities such as indoor plumbing and showers has dwindled further still? What are truckers to do in the event they experience coronavirus-like symptoms, or come down with COVID-19 while on the road?
As interim associate dean of the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Nursing, Charlie Yingling, said of the plight of truck drivers in an interview for Business Insider, “It’s better than being homeless, but better than that still is being home.”
But what to do when home is 2,000 miles away? Drivers trying to quarantine in their trucks could experience severe health problems, while posing a risk to others as they try to wait out the virus in a truck-stop parking lot.
Some things such as taking care of personal hygiene, using the bathroom, or purchasing food can’t be done inside the truck, meaning these drivers risk infecting others while performing necessary functions. “That almost excludes that individual from bathing or using the toilet,” Yingling said, adding, “They likely have no choice but to put others at risk to carry out their basic functions.”
The prospect of being sick, stranded, or even dying hundreds or thousands of miles from family and home adds yet another dimension of risk and anxiety to the men and women running hard to keep the shelves stocked at your local store. Some companies have addressed the challenge to a certain extent, with Landstar providing $1,000 per week for two weeks for drivers who test positive for coronavirus, UPS and XPO providing their drivers with 10 extra days of sick leave should they test positive, and FedEx offering 14 days of paid leave for their drivers who test positive.
Truckers Have Always Faced Harsh Realities of the Job
Meanwhile, truck drivers are now lauded as heroes, and their determination to press forward and deliver the food and supplies Americans need during a pandemic has elicited praise from people of all walks of life. While this recognition is overdue for a segment of the workforce that is too often either looked down upon or treated with outright hostility, certain realities haven’t changed.
They’ve always needed restrooms, for example, but too often have been relegated to using port-o-potties in a warehouse parking lot, or told just to deal with it when they are denied any facilities and instead forced to wait six hours or more to get loaded or unloaded.
They’ve always needed a place to shower, yet they’ve always had to keep deodorant and sanitary wipes in their trucks for those occasions when showers are unavailable, there is a two- or three-hour wait, or they don’t have $15 to pay for a shower and still have enough for a meal. They’ve always been cut off and flipped off in traffic. They have seen cars refuse to let them over or speed up to cut them off. They’ve watched cars “brake-check” them and heard horns blare at them because their truck slows down when carrying 40 tons uphill.
Truck drivers have always been told to make a delivery or a pickup quickly and then leave town lest they be seen or, God forbid, heard. They’ve always had to obey local ordinances against idling their engines, whether the temperature is 5 degrees in February or 95 degrees in August. If they don’t have an alternate power unit, they must either freeze in the winter or suffocate in triple-digit heat that you would be arrested for subjecting your pet to during the summer.
Truckers always spent the last hour of their shift trying to find a safe place to park where they won’t get shot or mugged, or have the authorities wake them in the middle of the night and order them to violate federal regulations by driving elsewhere, still exhausted, to find a different place to rest.
The “appreciation” for what these people endure with or without a pandemic was appropriately encapsulated in an article I read a few days ago, which began by emphasizing the plight of truckers who are forced by lack of available parking to drive fatigued. The sympathetic tone of the piece took an interesting turn when the article concluded, “If you’ve been in an accident involving an 18-wheeler, call the law firm of …”
Yes, the thanks and praise, bottled water, and packed lunches are all very much appreciated. But when this is all over, how long will the goodwill last? When you’re rushing about trying to make Christmas purchases, and a truck is going slower than you’d like, will the appreciation you so recently expressed give way again to car horns and one-fingered salutes? As one professional driver asked on social media, “Will you have forgotten how much you claim to care?”