We pass them on the road every day. They’ve touched almost everything we see daily. When they’re not operating, restaurants, hospitals, schools, manufacturing facilities and all the citizens who come in contact with those places notice immediately.
Mass transportation of goods across the United States has a history dating back to the late-1800s, and in the mid-1900s, “containerization” – or packing freight into large metal boxes – spawned the trucking industry as we know it.
Between 44,000 and 45,000 total vehicles travel daily on the “rural” sections of Interstate 65, which are south of the William H. Natcher Parkway and north of Exit 28, said Jeff Moore, district planning engineer for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet District 3 office. Of that total traffic along the rural sections of I-65, 45 percent is truck traffic, or between 19,800 and 20,250 trucks. On the “urban” section of I-65 – between the Natcher Parkway exit and Exit 28 – the number of total vehicles climbs to between 53,000 to 60,000 per day with 29 percent of that traffic being trucks, or between 15,370 and 17,400 trucks.
The average monthly truck passage count at the weigh station in Franklin is 24,893 northbound and 14,335 southbound, according to Officer Jared Newberry, public affairs officer for Kentucky State Police Commercial Vehicle Enforcement, in an email. The numbers are generated during working hours of the facilities, not over 24 hours. The northbound number is higher because of port of entry, Newberry said, meaning that Simpson County’s facility can handle five times the amount of traffic as the facility in Elizabethtown, which is at an intersection of parkways where trucks can divert on Bluegrass, Western Kentucky or Lincoln Parkway before reaching the Elizabethtown facility.
More than 1.5 million people were employed as heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers as of May 2013, with an estimated growth of 192,600 employees by 2022, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Billy Freeman of Cedar Bluff, Ala., is one of those drivers. Freeman is away from home about 49 or 50 weeks every year. He drives for South Carolina-based Cox Industries, Inc. and hauled utility poles for the company last month. Freeman, who has been a truck driver for 42 years, has driven for Cox for seven years. “It gets lonesome on the road out here, you know?” Freeman said while taking a break at the rest stop near the state line in Franklin. “Watching those signs go by. It’s a hard life.”
Freeman’s work days are about 10 to 12 hours with at least 30 minutes before a trip to check everything on the truck and at least 15 minutes before an eight-hour drive. When the Daily News spoke with Freeman in February, he still had 408 miles left to drive that day en route to Ohio.
“I try to stop every 100 to 150 miles and see if my loads are still tied down tight,” Freeman said.
The company provides Freeman with credit cards to use on gas and lodging when he doesn’t bed down in the sleeper on his truck. He’s been in 30 or 32 states and likes to change his route when he can so he can see new things.
“I’ll be in snow one day and sunshine the next,” Freeman said.
Being away from his home and his wife can get lonely, but Freeman said he finds ways to pass the time while working.
“You get to do a lot of thinking when you’re out on the road,” Freeman said, adding that he most often thinks about fishing – which he plans to do a lot of when he retires in three years.
‘If you buy it at the store, it came from a truck’
In addition to the utility poles Freeman hauled, anything from ice cream to machine parts make it across the country in trucks.
“When you’re in the (less than truckload) business, you haul just about anything,” said Wesley Rowland, vice president of Franklin Express Inc.
Tons of clothes, televisions and food are transported by trucks every year.
“If you buy it at the store, it came from a truck,” said David Burnette, operations manager for Brown Trucking Company, which is a dispatcher for the Bowling Green and Lexington areas and the only Brown location that hauls livestock that are taken around the country.
Even the equipment and parts that are used to make a product have to be brought in on a truck.
“You just don’t realize what all goes into getting that product to the shelf,” Burnette said.
In the past month, snow storms offered a peek at what life would be like without the trucking industry. The first snow storm in February delayed some trucks, but the second snow storm crippled hundreds of vehicles, including trucks, on Interstate 65 for hours, making national news.
Gary Meszaros, assistant vice president of auxiliary services for Western Kentucky University, said the university could sustain the restaurants that feed the thousands of students, faculty and staff who eat on campus if the trucks stopped running, but not for long.
“We would run out of food,” Meszaros said.
The Fresh Food Company would likely be the last eatery standing in the worst-case scenario because it has to stay stocked up on food to prepare different meals daily, Meszaros said. During the first snow storm, a Sysco truck got to Downing Student Union early that Monday morning, the first day of the storm, and had to wait for someone to make it in to work to clear the dock. Meszaros said the driver had arrived early because he wanted to beat the worst part of the storm.
“We had about 4,000 students here who still had to eat,” Meszaros said. “If he wasn’t there, we would’ve had a problem.”
The week after the first round of snow hit, Rowland said the trucks didn’t stop.
“(When) everything was shut down, how many trucks did you still see on the road? People still have to have their product,” Rowland said.
The continuous movement of trucks regardless of weather illustrates their importance, Rowland said.
“If the trucking company was to shut down, our whole economy would shut down,” he said.
Average driver wage is about $40,000
Some drivers own their rig, while others are drivers for a company. Burnette said that Brown drivers’ pay depends on whether they’re owner operators or company drivers.
“They get paid differently based on whether they provide the equipment or we provide the equipment for the driver,” Burnette said. “Owner-operators get a larger percentage since they’re providing the fuel and equipment.”
Although Brown ships freight over hundreds of miles, some drivers stay in the region. Brown employs 25 drivers locally and is a courier for several different companies.
“If you’re a local driver pulling stuff around here, you’re not going to make as much as somebody who pulls to Chicago or Denver,” Burnette said.
Franklin Express employs 18 drivers and is a regional carrier of finished goods, such as pipe covering for Berry Plastics and bottle caps. Rowland said the drivers work 40 to 60 hours per week and make between $35,000 and $50,000 per year plus overtime.
“Our drivers are home every night,” Rowland said.
Truck driving as a whole is divided into various industries, such as cement and concrete product manufacturing, specialized freight trucking wired telecommunications carriers and petroleum and petroleum products merchant wholesalers, according to the BLS. The mean hourly wage for truck drivers overall was $19.68 as of May 2013, according to the BLS. The mean annual wage for truck drivers overall was $40,940.
Other electrical equipment and component manufacturing was the highest-paying industry in the truck driving occupation at an hourly mean wage of $32.30 and an annual mean wage of $67,190. The industry employed 230 drivers as of May 2013, according to the BLS.
General freight trucking had the highest level of employment in the truck driving occupation with 577,090 employees, which was 61.49 percent of that industry’s employment. The BLS listed the employees’ hourly mean wage as $20.32 and their annual mean wage as $42,260.
The grocery and related product merchant wholesalers industry had the third highest level of employment for the truck driving occupation at 65,860, or 9 percent of the industry’s employment.
Safety paramount for trucks, other motorists
With 1.58 million truck drivers on the road hauling up to the federal weight limit of 80,000 pounds, safety is always a concern.
The Coalition Against Bigger Trucks, a nonprofit advocacy group that opposes truck size and weight increases, commissioned the January Harper Polling live-operator survey of 1,000 nationwide respondents and found that 76 percent of respondents oppose longer and heavier semitrailer trucks on the highway, according to a news release from the Kentucky Ambulance Providers Association.
Trucking companies such as Con-Way Freight, Old Dominion Freight Line and FedEx are pushing legislation to require every state to permit longer double trailer trucks, according to the release. The proposal would lengthen current double 28-foot trucks by 10 feet to double 33-foot trucks.
A 2013 independent study led by Marshall University found that 95 percent of law enforcement officers surveyed believe that adding more weight makes a truck more dangerous, according to the release. The same study found that 88 percent of truck drivers surveyed say that greater use of longer-combination vehicles would negatively impact highway safety.
The Harper poll found that 79 percent of respondents are very or somewhat convinced that heavier and longer trucks will lead to more braking problems and longer stopping distances, causing an increase in the number of accidents involving trucks. Nearly one in five trucks – 18.7 percent – had out-of-service violations during the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s Roadcheck 2014, and 46 percent of those trucks were placed out of service due to braking issues – 16.7 percent for brake adjustment violation and 29.5 percent for brake system violations.
The number of fatalities involving large trucks rose from 3,944 in 2012 to 3,964 in 2013, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Total fatal crashes were 31,006 in 2012, then dipped to 30,057 in 2013.
There were 672 fatalities on Kentucky highways in 2014, 65 of which involved a commercial vehicle, according to KSP. As of Friday, there have been 116 total fatalities on Kentucky highways.
Tony Parker of Rockfield wrote in a letter to the editor to the Daily News saying that he has driven a commercial vehicle for 23 years and logged about 2 million miles. He said a primary concern of his is how recklessly he has observed other motorists driving. When Parker drives into Bowling Green where the speed limit reduces from 55 mph to 45 mph, he said someone often passes him going much faster than the speed limit allows.
“If you knew the next time you got behind the wheel would be your last, would you be in such a hurry to get there? Slow down and pay attention,” Parker said in the letter.
Bill DeLay of Dayton, Ohio, has driven a truck for 33 years, 13 of which have been with ABF Freight. He has never had an accident, which he attributes to extreme caution on the road and watching out for other drivers who aren’t using caution.
“Today, there’s a lot more cars on the road than there was 20 years ago and people not paying attention,” DeLay said.
People may not realize the time it takes for a truck to move or brake as compared to a regular vehicle, DeLay said.
“You have about two seconds to make a decision in these trucks because you can’t maneuver them like a car,” DeLay said.
DeLay said he notices that drivers often get in a hurry and cause problems for trucks trying to turn or change lanes.
“Hit your brakes. Give somebody four or five seconds,” DeLay said.
For 70 hours a week, DeLay plugs down the road at 62 mph, a speed he said is for safety reasons but seems to make other drivers impatient.
“I wish people would take a little bit more time and pay attention to the trucks,” DeLay said. “We can’t move like a car. We can’t stop like a car. ... When we get to sliding, we’re just like a big pretzel on the road.”
DeLay said he drives carefully because he thinks of the people in the cars he passes as his own “kinfolk.”
“I would probably never drive again if I hurt somebody,” DeLay said.
The 11-hour days DeLay and his fellow ABF employees put in often mean atypical schedules for drivers. The company pays for lodging for the drivers, and DeLay said they often check in to hotels late at night or early in the morning, so housekeeping staff may come clean the room in the middle of the day while the drivers are still trying to sleep.
Although he encounters unsafe driving and odd sleep cycles on an almost daily basis, DeLay said he loves his job and has been with the company long enough that he gets to see his wife of 45 years every weekend.
“I just enjoy the different. Instead of going to the same work, the same desk, the same door in and out, I get to see different people and different places every day,” DeLay said. “Then you know every bump in the road and every restaurant along the way.”