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Owner Operator 411


12 January 2010

The Way It Was: A Short History of Trucking

1970 Ford

The Last 40 Years

See my other posts:

FAQ for the Owner Operator
Idling Regulations
Definitions and Industry Terms
Blackrock Auxiliary Power Unit (APU)
Interactive Cost per Mile (CPM) Calculator Spreadsheet
Privacy Policy
1) Owner Operator 411 – Welcome
2) Income and Expenses
3) Financing and Credit
4) Operating Authority or Leasing?
5) Equipment
6) How To Do Bookkeeping and Other Necessary Paperwork
7) What You Need to Know About Loadboards
8) Companies That Lease Beginning Owner Operators
9) What You Actually Need to Get Started - Licenses, Permits, Insurance, and Taxes
10) Truck Driving Schools

When I bought my first truck and became an owner operator in 1972, I had already been driving a truck for 5 years.  Most of my experience up to that point was local, so when I took my first load in my own truck and over-the-road at that, it was quite an adventure!

I was so excited that when I got home at about 2:00 in the morning, I relived every mile with my wife, who was also excited and had waited up for me so she could hear all about my trip.

Speaking of my wife, let me say that without her support, I would not have been able to be an owner operator.  So many people get a job driving over-the-road (OTR), or buy a truck and become an owner operator, and then have to give it up because they do not have the support of their families.

The support of a spouse (husband or wife, boyfriend/girlfriend), can mean the difference between success or failure.  A person will have a very difficult time being on the road if their better half is always complaining about them not being home, not being there for all the "special days" (birthdays, anniversaries, school events), and not being available to fix things, or know what to do when the furnace goes out, the car has a flat, or the roof starts leaking.

My wife and I discussed, in depth, the financial side of buying a truck and going on the road, but we hardly thought about the social and emotional side.  Luckily, she was able to make a decision without consulting me, could change a tire or spark plugs, replace a broken window, relight a furnace, and a hundred other things.

She always keeps the yard mowed, and does a lot of little "fixer-uppers", so that when I come home, I can rest and enjoy my family, or do maintenance on the truck, and not have to spend doing odd jobs around the house.  Believe me -- that helped me enormously, alleviated a lot of tension, and enabled me to keep doing my job as a truck driver.

Speaking of truck maintenance, my wife also helped me work on the truck whenever I needed her and usually even when I didn't.  This made us closer together and I could finish the repairs faster so that I could spend more quality time with her and the kids.

Not only could she do the simple things like checking the air in the tires, replacing light bulbs, and handing me tools, she could change the oil and filters and grease the truck, too.  She already knew some simple mechanics when we got married and that made it easier for her to learn.

There came a time when I had to rebuild my engine, and she was right there beside me all the way.  Now that may not sound so hard, but we were broke, broke, broke and we had to do the work ourselves or go out of business.  The problem was, we were having a near blizzard and we didn't have a garage.

We had a cabover and we built a tent and worked under that.  There a was nearly 25 mile an hour wind which was blowing snow in the cracks of our tent, and it was COLD  - minus 15 degrees.  She worked with me the whole time until we got the truck back on the road.

Eventually she got to the point where she could do almost everything I could do.  I am very picky about who works on any of my equipment, even a lawnmower and I don't trust very many people.  Once she learned how to do something, I trusted her work completely.  If she wasn't sure of something, she asked me, so I would know that she wasn't doing something wrong and letting me think it had been done right.

I know that this isn't for everyone, but it works for us.

When a member of the family is hardly ever home, and leaves the other one to take care of everything, it can (and often does) tear a family apart.

When I started driving, we did not have cell phones or other means of communication, so I would have to call on a pay phone, and that was very expensive, so I would usually call only once a week.  In the meantime, all kinds of things were happening at home which my wife had to deal with by herself:  car breakdowns, sick and injured children, appliances that quit working, everyday things such as school activities, bills, and running a house without any help.  As she was unable to reach me, she had to make decisions on her own and handle these crises on her own.

I was fortunate that she is able to handle all of this by herself, and never blames me for not being there.  She understands that the nature of being an OTR truck driver demanded that kind of lifestyle.

One thing that helped us was the fact that I could take my family with me.  My wife was able to see what it was like to be on the road: the hassles of traffic, the problems of not getting enough rest, the difficulty of finding a backhaul, the boredom of waiting to get loaded/unloaded, and so on.  By her being able to understand, it made it easier for her to cope.  She could already drive a standard (we even had a car once which had to be double clutched), so it was easy to teach her to drive and that helped her understanding even more.

We were also able to occasionally take the kids with us (even as babies), so we were able to be a family together, even when on the road.  This also helped the kids to understand what Daddy did.  We did not do this very often, as it was hard for all of to sleep in a 24 inch wide bunk.

On a couple of occasions when the kids got older, we would take a load near an amusement park or other point of interest, stop for a day after we delivered our load and have a "working vacation".

It is much more difficult to do any of that today, mostly due to insurance regulations regarding passengers, even when you both own your own truck.  It is, however, easier to stay in touch with cell phones and email, and this can help.

I already wrote about finding freight (see "Load Boards") way back then, now I will write a little about "truck stops".

When people first started driving trucks in the 19 teens, there were no truck stops.  Most deliveries were local.  The roads were in very bad shape or there weren't any at all, so there were no OTR deliveries.

Eventually roads and equipment improved and shippers started shipping farther and farther away.  When a driver got hungry, he would stop at a small Mom and Pop diner. Service stations usually did not sell diesel.  In the 1940's, some small diners who had a large area around them put in diesel fuel pumps.  These were the first "truck stops".

Not much changed between then and the mid 1960's.  As the interstate highway system grew, so did places that catered to trucks.  Oil companies started building truck stop chains, such as Truckstops of America (TA) (now Travel Centers of America), eventually taking business away from the diners.  My biggest complaint today is that so many so-called truck stops have taken out their restaurants and let a franchise fast food place like McDonalds or Wendy's take over.

Now most truck stops also cater to RV and four-wheelers (hence the name change from Truckstops of America to Travel Centers of America). There are still a few true truck stops today, mainly Iowa 80, the largest truck stop in the world.

Where once about the only thing you get at a truck stop was food and fuel, now you can buy almost anything from safety pins to truck parts and repairs.  In addition to fuel, most have added certified scales, so you can weigh your loads.

Amenities have also been added such as showers, truck washes, game rooms, movie theaters, gyms, doctors, and barbers, and I know of one that even has a do-it-yourself pet wash.

I remember the first time I saw a shower in a truck stop.  It was in Pennsylvania in the late 70's at a truck stop (diner, fuel) that I stopped at often.  The public (four wheelers) would enter the diner directly, but as trucks parked behind the diner, drivers would enter through a large room behind the kitchen used for storage. As I entered this large room one day, I saw a shower curtain suspended from pipes hanging from the ceiling and forming a square.  On the floor, cinder blocks one row high formed a square under the shower curtain.  There was no cubicle, or any privacy other than the shower curtain.  This was the first truck stop shower I had ever seen.  I was so excited about it, that I managed to get a load up that way a couple of weeks later and took my wife so I could show it to her!

Trucks were also much different than those of today.  Most of them had small engines (about 350 horsepower).  Of course the standard trailer was only 35 feet long, gradually increasing to 45' (70's), 48' (80's) and today's 53' trailers, and width from 8' to 8.5', so the need for larger hp was not so great in the early days.  Still, I remember hauling full loads up a mountain on a two lane road and only being able to go about 20 miles per hour.  One could almost walk faster than the truck could pull those heavy loads up those winding hills.

Traffic would be backed up for a long ways behind you.  Drivers of cars knew that if a truck pulled as far to the right as possible and turned on their left turn signal, you were telling them it was clear for them to pass.  You gave this signal because the driver of the car could not see around you and had to rely on you and pass on faith, otherwise they could be struck behind you for 20 minutes going up a mountain.

Cars and trucks alike would flash their headlights to signal that they were going to pass.

Some light signals are carried over today, such as flashing your headlights after a truck has passed to let him know it is safe (he has enough room) to pull back into your lane, and to flash your tail or maker lights to say, "Thank you" after someone has given you the "all clear" signal.  Unfortunately, this consideration for the other driver is dying out even with truck drivers.

Trucks started out with hoods, but in the 70's, cabovers (COE - cab over engine) became the standard.  These were very square shaped and flat on the front.  They most certainly were not aerodynamic but they shortened the tractor wheelbase.  This was necessitated by length laws.  A shorter truck meant you could pull a longer trailer.  After the laws were changed allowing longer combinations, the "long nose", or "large car" started becoming popular again.  Today these trucks are becoming more rounded and streamlined to help with fuel economy.  One of the first aerodynamic trucks was built by Kenworth.  As it hood was rounded and sloped downward, it was nicknamed the "Anteater".

Speaking of fuel economy, within months after I bought my first truck, the first "great oil embargo" hit.  It was almost impossible to buy gas or fuel.  When one did find fuel, he was usually restricted to 50 gallons in a truck that got about 4 miles to the gallon.  Hundreds of trucks were stranded all over the U.S. and unable to deliver their loads or to get back home.

To make matters worse, unlike today, you could not look on the internet to find the next fuel stop or to check to see if a truck stop had fuel.  All you could do was to drive and hope that when (or if) you got to a truck stop you could get some fuel.

It was about this time that roads and equipment improved enough that shippers realized they could ship more payload without paying more in freight rates.  With a "perfect storm" of higher fuel prices, the need to cut costs, deregulation, and increased weight limits, the next decade saw changes that affected the trucking industry -- and especially the owner operator -- forever.

Shippers and others keep lobbying to allow longer and heavier trucks.  If you get paid by the mile, and the shipper can move 100,000 pounds for the same cost to them as 80,000 pounds, they gain, but the poor owner operator loses.  It is his equipment that is suffering the wear and tear and using more fuel, but hey! they are just dumb owner operators, so let them bear the burden of cost as long as the shipper can increase their profit.

As mentioned earlier, trailers became larger and then double and triple trailers were allowed on certain roads, while at the same time deregulation allowed rates to be cut.  Now owner operators could haul about 10,000 pounds more of freight for less pay than ever before.  It has been down hill ever since then.

Sorry, I kind of got off track.  I was talking about trucks, not trucking; so back to the subject.

Many cabovers did not have a sleeper and those that did just had a small bed, usually about 24" wide; no shelves, cabinets or any other storage space. Many drivers had a board that they laid between the cab seats and that became their bed.

Cabovers had the engine under the cab, so that the engine actually came up into the cab between the seats.  This was of course covered and insulated, but there was no room between the seats.  This space was called a dog house.  When my wife would go with me, that is where she would usually sleep, so that I could enjoy the full comfort of the bunk.

Few trucks of this time had air conditioning, and heaters were not very effective.  I used to carry a small portable propane heater to heat the cab and sometimes it would get so cold inside (while driving), I would have to scrape ice off of the inside of the windshield so I could see.

As I said before, early truck stops catered to truck drivers.  Everyone used to say if you wanted good food, stop where the truckers stopped, because they knew all of the good places to eat.  This wasn't necessarily true - truck drivers stopped where there was food, fuel and room to park, just as we do today.  Most of these places had true home cooked meals, just like Mom, but we all know all Moms are not good cooks -- ha, ha.  Most of them had good food though.

In the 60's truck stops started adding "driver's only sections".  The general public wasn't allowed to eat in these sections.  Supposedly if you were in the driver section, you were served quicker than if you were in the general restaurant, and most of the time, that was true.

Almost every table in the driver section had a telephone installed in the booth, so that drivers could call their dispatchers or home while eating (remember, there weren't any cell phones yet).

Once my wife and I got a baby sitter and she went with me to help.  At that time I was pulling a flatbed, and she would help me tarp, un-tarp and put on and take off the side kit.  She could do all of this by herself, but it was always easier when two people were doing it.

Anyway, we stopped to eat and went in the driver's section and sat down.  The waitress came over and told us that we weren't allowed to be in that section, as it was for driver's only.  My wife had to show her chauffeur's license (pre-CDL days), before we were allowed to stay.  That shows you how few women drove back in those days.

In the 60's and early 70's CB radios became popular with the general public, mainly due to movies and TV shows about trucks and trucking.  I don't know why all of sudden this became a popular subject (maybe people were getting tired of all the westerns being made at the time).

There were numerous movies, such as "White Line Fever", "Convoy", "Black Dog", "Breaker, Breaker", "High Ballin", and of course the most famous, "Smokey and the Bandit".  On TV the popular shows were "B.J. and the Bear" and "Movin' On".  Most of these had very little to do with the reality of actually driving a truck, but they did make for some good entertainment.  Probably the most realistic movie was "F.I.S.T." about Jimmy Hoffa starting the Teamsters.

There was a movie called "They Drive by Night" from 1940.  The storyline was lame, but it is interesting to watch just to see the old trucks and the way truck drivers dressed.

Truck shows seem to be gaining popularity again for some reason, such as "Ice Road Truckers", "Trick My Truck" and others, but my favorite is "American Trucker" on the Speed channel.  This guy loves trucks and trucking and he explains what he is talking about.  The best part is the history he tells and shows.  It is probably the most authentic truck show around.

Truck drivers used to be called "Knights of the Road".  If a car had a breakdown, they could almost always depend on a truck driver stopping to render aid. I'm not saying that there weren't any bad truck drivers, but for the most part, they were trusted and for a good reason.  They were helpful, polite, and dependable.

I'm not sure why that has changed, but I think deregulation had a lot to do with it.  Way back when, truck drivers usually started driving in their teens or early twenties.  It was usually a family tradition, and it was something to be proud of.  After deregulation, so many people started driving, without the history of being a good Samaritan.

Schedules became tighter, and so many drivers were just out to make a buck, without any consideration for others, even there fellow drivers.  It became more dangerous to stop and help someone.  Hijacking were frequent and one never knew if they stopped to help someone in distress if they were going to be robbed themselves or have their truck stolen.

Sad to say that today truck drivers are often vilified, sometimes with good reason -- they no longer have any courtesy on the road.  Their lack of professional driving habits makes people hate "big trucks which are trying to kill me."

Before debit cards, fuel cards and other electronic innovations, a driver had to carry all of the money he would need while on a trip.  Companies gave "advances", a portion of the pay to use to buy fuel, food and other things.  If a person would be going from coast-to-coast, it wouldn't be unusual for him to be carrying $3,000 or $4,000 cash.  Sometimes this led to robberies, and even murders, but it was rare.

Log books have been around forever, but if a person was creative, they could get work as much as they wanted.  I knew guys who would drive so many miles, they would run three sets of logs at a time.  The carriers knew that no one could possibly move as much freight as these drivers did legally, but as long as the logs they turned in looked good, the carriers just looked the other way.  The more goods that were delivered, the more money everyone made.

Today, that is becoming impossible.  Logs are checked against receipts for fuel and tolls.  EOBR's (Electronic on Board Recorders) and satellite tracking is making it harder to cheat on logs.  New hours-of-service rules are going to into effect next year, which will further curtail how much a person can drive.  But are rates going up to compensate for this???  NO WAY!!

Truck driving used to enjoyable.  Although some things, such as better and more comfortable equipment, is beneficial, the extra costs, and the added regulations, and low pay, more traffic, and lousy drivers (both trucks and four wheelers) hardly makes it worthwhile.

I will be adding to this post later, so check back, or better yet, subscribe.



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