Hero’s of the Highway

There was a time not that long ago when truck drivers were respected as  “Hero’s of the Highway”. Books were written, movies were produced and we were treated with respect by the motoring public. The average driver knew that if they were in trouble on the side of the highway, there would be a trucker there to assist in anyway possible within minutes. However, in the last 30 years or so, all this has changed, and the reason is easy to determine. Drivers have changed. The professionalism we once had, and displayed to the public has all but vanished. Where we once would stop on the side of the road to render assistance, now, if we were to see a person lying motionless in the parking lot, most drivers would simply walk around the person and carry on with their day.  Respect for the motoring public, our fellow drivers and respect for our own industry and it’s image have pretty much vanished.  We as an industry have caused this change of public perception, and we look and sound foolish complaining about it now. Once upon a time, we policed our industry, calling out the few bad apples for their bad behaviour. The CB radio was once a great tool to pass the time chatting with another driver about any subject you can think of. Now it’s just full of drivers doing what they can to annoy other drivers, and gaining some pleasure from the experience. I recall a time, long before Elogs that I found myself in conversation on the CB with another driver as we were leaving Toronto. As we chatted, the miles just flew past, and before we knew it, we were in Thunder Bay, some 16 hours later!  Today, you’d be lucky to get a traffic report on the CB. 

Where we once would hold drivers to task for tossing garbage out the window, we as an industry now can’t even be bothered taking 5 or 6 steps to put garbage in a garbage can.  I have seen drivers throwing chicken bones out the window onto the parking lot literally 3 feet from a garbage can. When I mentioned it to him, he just shrugged with the ”not my problem” expression, and drove off. 

The main reason for the change in driver’s attitude is, in my opinion, generational. After World War II, North America experienced the Baby Boom, a huge population explosion from 1946 until 1964.  As the economy grew during that period, there was a fresh crop of drivers coming into the industry. Companies had the ability to screen drivers, accepting only the good ones, and had the time and resources to train the heck out of them. As time went on and the global economy grew, finding the best drivers changed to finding decent drivers, and the training made available to the new driver’s diminished somewhat.  When I was first licensed in 1986, finding a driving job was next to impossible. Everywhere I went, I heard the same song: “No experience, no job.”  At that time, 2 years experience was required for almost any driving job.  It took until 1994 until I managed to get a driving job, and I was very fortunate to be paired with experienced drivers to get some proper training. Alas, I think that was pretty much the end of that era. Within 6 months, I myself was a driver trainer, and I still had a LOT to learn. 

Within 3 years, I had moved on to a larger company, which was still managing to hold on to the 2 years experience minimum for new drivers, with the odd exception. But as time marched on, the pool of older, experienced drivers started to dwindle as the early boomers left the industry, thereby removing the decades of gained knowledge and experience from the learning pool. A few “fly by night” driving schools opened up and they just churned out drivers who had been taught little more than how to pass a road test. Just as quickly, a few fly by night trucking companies started up and hired these barely trained drivers, and the results are pretty easy to determine. Some of the larger more established companies opened their own driving schools, offering free tuition to get your trucking licence in return for a guarantee that you would drive for the company for a minimum of 2 years. The first year would be with instructors to teach you the basics, get you used to traffic, adverse conditions and the like. If the situation became too overwhelming for the student, there was an experienced instructor to take over, and you could learn by observing. Most of the company sponsored schools had 4 levels of training, each level being 6 months in length. Each level added more responsibility, and harder  driving conditions to prepare the students for real world trucking.  As the world economy continues to grow, however, the need for drivers increased at a rate that schools simply couldn’t keep up with, which lead to some less than reputable schools opening, primarily in Ontario and British Columbia. These schools would simply offer a truck driving licence for a fee, yet they seldom if ever ever road tested the applicants. Most of these drivers were unacceptable to the main stream carriers at the time, so a few dozen fly by night carriers opened up, and hired the licensed, but untrained drivers and in pursuit of the almighty dollar, sent them out to learn as they went.  Unfortunately, these drivers lacked the proper driving instruction and also didn’t get the indoctrination into the comradeship of the industry. To most of us “old farts” from the tail end of the Baby Boomers, we were taught the “all for one and one for all” with our morning cereal as we grew up. Those born in the 1980s and after are from a much different generation, which was basically taught “every man for himself”, so the comradeship fell by the wayside. This generation was also taught that everything they did was okay, so there was no need to ask for help if they needed it. The result was unscrupulous companies hiring inexperienced drivers and sending them into the most dangerous road, weather and generally bad conditions. These drivers with next to no experience were being sent through the mountains in the winter with heavy loads. They had no idea what they were doing, and inevitably, there were wrecks and fatalities galore, all due to inexperience.  The flat lands, and major metropolitan areas also suffered from the same inexperienced drivers. Of course, all these wrecks and fatalities were splashed all over the media, leading to increased scrutiny from all levels of law enforcement. But the biggest side effect of these unscrupulous companies, both the schools selling licenses and the companies hiring the untrained drivers was the near complete loss of respect for the industry as a whole. Add to these reasons some of the laziness and disgusting actions of the current crop of drivers, and it’s really no wonder we as an industry are viewed not as the vital industry that drives the global economy, but more as a necessary evil that must simply be tolerated. Not that many years ago, many larger retailers would welcome trucks staying in their parking lots overnight. But after too many drivers were using their parking lots as a washroom, or worse, just tossing all manner of trash on the ground, rather than using the provided garbage cans, many of these parking lots are no longer available to us. At best, we’re allowed in to shop, or make deliveries, then we are required to vacate the premises. Some will even apply a boot to your truck if you stay too long, and have the truck and trailer towed away.  

In short, this lack of respect we are experiencing is 100% our own fault. We as an industry are the only ones who can change the mind of the general public, and the minds of the various levels of government. Almost every day, social media is full of reports of vehicles and drivers being fined, and placed out of service for mechanical and documentation issues that should never be an issue. Simple things that even a cursory inspection would discover. Cracked wheel rims, worn air lines, expired safety inspections, expired licence plates, broken and missing suspension parts to name but a few. The lack of experienced drivers is leading to the introduction of self driving trucks, and has already forced some safety features that shouldn’t be needed, but with the deteriorating skill level of drivers, and the fact that some of them just don’t care about the rules of the road, they are, unfortunately being forced upon the industry as a whole.  Automatic transmissions, since the new crop of drivers have no idea how to drive a standard, and the companies can’t afford to get an experienced driver teach the new comers how to shift, let alone how to “float” the gears. Blind side cameras to alert you when a vehicle is in your blind spot. Never needed this before, as I was taught to check all my mirrors at least every 2 seconds to prevent someone sneaking up beside me. Adaptive cruise control to help prevent you from running into the back end of another vehicle. This one really makes me shake my head. If you can’t figure out by yourself that you’re following too close to the vehicle ahead, you shouldn’t be in the road in any lane type of vehicle. Lane departure warnings to alert you when you start drifting out of your lane.  Again,’if you don’t have the skill to keep the truck between the lines, you don’t belong on the road.  To make matters worse, the 2024 model year Peterbilt and Kenworth trucks, and perhaps others with actually steer themselves back if you start to drift from your lane without the turn signal activated.  

It’s not the industry that is mandating these new safety features. Believe it or not, the insurance companies are demanding these changes to make the roads safer. What we as drivers need to do, is make ourselves the most important safety device on the vehicle, which will go a long way to reclaiming our position of respect on the road, rather than being seen as an 18 wheel death machine.

Don Taylor has been a professional driver since March 1985.  In 1994 he made the jump to driving tractor trailers, and has accumulated over 3.5 million miles, including over 4 years of driving turnpike doubles in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.  He is currently hauling flat decks across North America.