At any given time, more than 1.7 million truck drivers snake through our country’s arterial highways, delivering everything from potato chips to construction materials to electronics. We might not often stop to think about it, but these long-haul truckers are key to keeping our economic infrastructure running. To do that, they make considerable personal sacrifices.
“It’s not just a job,” Jim Simpson, a seasoned driver, told Mental Floss in 2018. “It’s a lifestyle.” Truckers sleep in their cabs, see their families only intermittently, and sometimes find themselves at risk when perilous roads or aggressive drivers make for dangerous conditions. To get a better sense of what truckers experience behind the wheel, we asked two drivers—Simpson and Keith, who preferred not to use his last name—about life on the road. Here’s what they had to say.
1. There's a high turnover rate for truck drivers.
Gather 10 truckers in one place and odds are that eight or nine of them won’t be around a year later. At the end of 2020, the annual turnover rate for drivers at large truckload fleets was 92 percent, according to the American Trucking Association. At smaller fleets (those earning less than $30 million a year in revenue) it was about 72 percent. “A lot of people get into trucking because they see it as a way of making decent coin and they’re preyed upon by companies who just churn them out,” Simpson said.
2. Truck engines are programmed so drivers can’t speed.
If you’ve ever been stuck behind a truck that seems to be moving at a glacial pace, don’t blame the driver. “Most companies limit the speed of their trucks,” Keith said. “I’ve been capped at 62 miles per hour.” The limit is often programmed into an engine’s computer, making it impossible for a truck to go faster even if the driver felt it was necessary.
3. Truck drivers can sample the goods, occasionally.
Long-haul trucking involves transporting practically every kind of consumer good or material you can think of. If the delivery happens to be tasty, sometimes drivers can get lucky and get a free (authorized) sample of their cargo. “Some of the bigger ice cream or candy companies, when you pick up or drop off a shipment, someone might give you a sample,” Keith said. “Ben & Jerry’s, for example, gave me a pint of ice cream. I had a freezer on board, thankfully.” Another time, a company Keith was delivering to refused a 25-pound box of chicken with damage to the box. “The receiver told us to keep it. We ate a lot of chicken that week.”
4. Truck drivers might have to call an Uber.
You’d assume that the biggest perk of driving for a living is the ability to transport yourself anywhere you want to go. And while it’s true that drivers have to stick to a routine to get freight where it needs to go on time, they can still make stops at tourist attractions if they're ahead of schedule. Depending on the layout of the local roads, though, there might not be a place to park a 53-foot trailer. “When that happens, we might park a quarter-mile away and then call an Uber if it’s an urban area,” Simpson said. “That happens all the time.”
5. Truck drivers can cook on board.
For a driver, truck cabs are like mini-apartments. In addition to sleeping quarters, many have outlets or power sources that can accommodate small appliances like refrigerators, microwaves, and cooking gear—all valuable resources when drivers want to avoid the greasy, calorie-heavy food at restaurants and rest stops. “When I was with my driving trainer, he had a Foreman grill,” Keith said. “I’d be driving and he’d hand me a plate of food. When I got my own truck, I got a Crockpot and kept it on the floor.”
6. Some truck drivers mount giant chrome ducks on their hood.
According to Simpson, drivers who step away from working for major carriers and go into the hauling business for themselves like to signal their independence by customizing their truck. As they own it, no one can tell them otherwise. “I sometimes see a truck with weird add-ons, like an 8-inch chrome duck or a weird paint job, and that’s the trucker telling you, ‘I own this truck, not some mega-carrier.’”
7. Having a driving buddy isn’t always a great idea.
Some operators pair up with a partner to help combat the loneliness of long-haul driving. In addition to having someone to talk to, they can cover more ground by having one person sleep while the other drives. Sometimes this works—Simpson drives accompanied by his wife—but sometimes it doesn’t. “You’re basically locking two strangers in something smaller than a jail cell,” Simpson said, citing it as another reason new drivers forced to pair with a partner wind up leaving the industry.
8. Picking up a hitchhiker can get a truck driver fired.
When a driver travels with a partner, he or she has gotten permission from the trucking company. The company makes the proper insurance adjustments for two passengers on the haul. If a driver picks up a hitchhiker, they’re then dealing with an unauthorized passenger, according to Simpson.
How would a company find out a driver picked up a hitchhiker? “We have a camera on the dash,” he said. “One lens points out, and one points to the cab. If I hit a bump or anything that seems like it could be an accident, it snaps on for 30 seconds and sends footage to the company.” If that footage has a passenger in frame, the driver could be fired.
9. Truck drivers still use CB radios.
Although the internet and cell phones have stifled their use, many drivers still use dash-mounted CB radios to communicate with other drivers. “I had one and it was nice to hear if there was a traffic jam coming up,” Keith said. “Beyond that, there’s just a lot of trash talking, and it escalates into the equivalent of an internet flame war.”
Those who do tune into a CB band can still expect to hear some of the classic trucker slang. A "black eye" is a busted headlight; a "double nickel" is cruising at 55 miles per hour; taking a restroom break is "paying the water bill."
10. Truck drivers communicate with their blinkers.
Not all drivers have CBs, but truckers still might need to send a message to someone else on the road. To do that, Simpson said they can take advantage of their headlights. “If I’m driving and someone passes me, I’ll turn my lights off and on a couple of times to let him know he’s cleared the front of my truck [and can merge],’” he said. “Then he might blink twice to say ‘thanks.’”
11. Yes, people do call that 800 number.
If you’re ever caught behind a truck, you might wind up staring at a bumper sticker that encourages people to call an 800 number to report a driver with dangerous road habits. According to Keith, some people do actually call, but they might not like what the person on the other end has to say. “I got reported once for hauling a bunch of Pop-Tarts filling in New York,” he said. “The stuff is liquid and shifts when you’re driving, so you take turns slowly. A guy didn’t like that and called the number. The safety supervisor ended up going off on him."
This article was originally published in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.