Competition puts region's truckers in a tight squeeze Some flout safety rules and drive 18 hours a day to meet schedules

February 18, 1997|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

BLOOMSBURY, N.J. - From the time he was a little boy, Mike Tish dreamed of driving a truck for a living, hurtling down the nation's highways behind the wheel of an 18-wheel tractor-trailer.

But now, at 24, with three years on the road and a painful divorce under his lengthening belt, he's looking for something that will keep him a little closer to his West Virginia home.

"If you add up all the hours, we're making far less than minimum wage," he said, gulping down his minute steak, mashed potatoes and brown gravy lunch at the Unocal 76 Truck Stop here before heading back onto the highway.

Romance is gone

The romance is gone from a blue-collar profession once glamorized in movies by Burt Reynolds and Kris Kristofferson and cartoons by R.J. Crumb. Average wages for the men - and 91 percent of truck drivers are men - who haul the nation's freight have fallen steadily since 1980, when the federal government deregulated the industry.

Intense competition and computerized dispatching have turned the average long-haul truck driver's life into a white-line nightmare. On the road two to six weeks at a time, truckers, most of whom are paid by the mile, can wind up spending unpaid day after unpaid day waiting for a load.

Then they rush to the next stop, often on the other side of the country. With many companies dangling bonuses for on-time delivery and shippers demanding their loads ever faster to make just-in-time manufacturing work or to minimize inventory carrying costs, many drivers flout federal safety regulations and drive their rigs 18 hours a day.

To operate legally, a driver must take eight hours off after 10 hours on the road. So, even when operating legally, a truck driver's daily routine becomes a confusing blur of disrupted sleep, boredom and loneliness. Over the course of a week, many drivers will be awake and on the road at every point of the 24-hour day.

No. 1 workplace killer

Though accident rates have declined significantly over the last decade because of safety rules adopted by the government, trucking remains the nation's No. 1 on-the-job killer. There were 749 trucker deaths in 1995, or 12 percent of all occupational fatalities.

Truck driving was also No. 1 in nonfatal on-the-job injuries, with 163,800 incidents. If the motoring public is included, 3,587 Americans died in truck accidents in 1995.

As driving conditions have deteriorated over the last decade, turnover among the quarter-million long-haul truck drivers has reached staggering proportions: 100 percent a year at many firms.

Pay a visit to a typical truck stop and it's not hard to find out why. In the restaurant you'll see a few dozen grizzled men in caps and cowboy boots, most of whom are eating by themselves. The walls and booths are lined with telephones for calling dispatchers or loved ones. Conversation in the shower rooms or around the oversized wall maps amounts to grumbling about the job with strangers.

"All they talk about is quitting," said Tish, who made $20,000 last year after taking several months off to look for another job.

Lately, they've had something else to talk about. J.B. Hunt Transport Inc. of Lowell, Ark., is raising driver rates from 25 cents to 37 cents a mile, in effect a 48 percent increase in pay. Hunt, the nation's second-largest long-haul trucking firm, with 8,500 drivers, will also start giving drivers at least two days off for every week on the road, doubling the previous level.

According to officials, the company is gambling that it will make up the extra costs by reducing its insurance bills and training costs because it hopes to use the higher rates to lure experienced drivers from other firms and hold on to its drivers longer.

Younger, inexperienced drivers get in the most accidents. Training new drivers costs up to $4,000 each, often with little to show at the end of it. Last year, Hunt eliminated its training schools after seeing most of its trainees flee the industry upon discovering what it entailed and how little it paid.

Traditionally, the industry has relied on a network of private schools and community colleges to churn out new driver recruits. In recent years, it has also turned abroad, recruiting from Ireland, Russia and Latin America.

Schneider National of Green Bay, Wis., the nation's largest long-haul firm, with 13,000 drivers, received 400 special visas from the government for drivers in 1993 and 1994. It would love to bring in more, but the government discontinued the program.

"Getting good drivers to enter and stay in the business is becoming a bigger issue," said Bill Matheson, vice president of operations at Schneider. "The lifestyle is such that it doesn't compete well with other jobs where people can be home on a regular basis."

And there are demographic factors. Until recently, companies could recruit drivers from the millions of workers who had lost jobs in the nation's factories and mines. That source has pretty much evaporated.

Real wages spiral down

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