Despite rules on how many miles a driver can log and mandated breaks after the 70-hour mark, many truckers take on extra shifts for the overtime pay. Pushing themselves beyond their physical abilities, they put their own wellbeing at risk, to say nothing of the wellbeing of the other drivers on the road.
The wages are unknown and the hours aren’t great, but the biggest concern facing truck drivers is the loneliness that comes with the job. A human resources director for a trucking company told the Herald Mail that addressing the reality of isolation is so important that her company covers it in orientation materials. Employees are encouraged to listen to audiobooks, or stay in cellphone contact with friends, family, and other truckers, just to have a connection to another human being during the isolated hours and days on the road. Some drivers, however, resort to other methods.
A study of truckers and their working conditions around the world found that the “overall use of mind-altering substance was high,” typically due to the long hours and desolate nature of the job. Drugs of choice tended to be amphetamines and cocaine, which stimulate drivers into staying awake for unnaturally long periods of time. However, side effects of their consumption include agitation, hallucinations, hypertension, and dependence, with impaired driving and death likely occurring as well.Half of the drivers interviewed by the study’s authors admitted to drinking, although alcohol was the substance that was found the least often when the drivers were given drug tests. Thirty percent of the drivers confessed to taking amphetamines. Truckers in the United States had the highest frequency of positive tests for alcohol in the entire world, at 12.5 percent of American-based drivers.
While this obviously threatens the lives of the truck drivers and other people on the road, it creates the additional problem of giving trucking companies the impression that their employees are capable of making longer trips than they realistically can. Longer shifts may be assigned, more drugs may be taken to keep up with the demand, and the chances of an overdose or an accident significantly increase.
Younger drivers are more susceptible to this problem; they are more inexperienced than veteran truckers, and they are driven to make more money, so they are more likely to take risks that endanger themselves.
Trucking companies often assign younger drivers more arduous routes (longer ones that involve overnight driving), which further exposes them to an environment where they are compelled to take cocaine or amphetamines to keep going.
Commenting on the study, Science Daily writes that “the use of booze and drugs among truck drivers on the road is common,” and linked primarily to the unfavorable working conditions. A total of 36 studies between 2000 and 2013 show that truckers used alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine, and cannabis to make it through grueling shifts. As many as 91 percent of the drivers interviewed in those studies drank while on the job; amphetamine use peaked at 82.5 percent, and cocaine use topped out over 8 percent.
A professor at the Institute for Health and Care Research in Amsterdam noted that the figures are troubling, not just for the truck drivers themselves and their industry, but for members of the general public who have to share roads with drug-addled operators of vehicles upwards of 50,000 pounds.
In addition to the use of amphetamines and cocaine keeping drivers unnaturally awake and alert, the drugs also compel them to take more risks while on the road, such as driving faster, making inadvisable lane mergers, and feeling invincible in the face of inclement weather conditions. When the effects of the psychoactive stimulants wear off, the drivers could easily fall asleep behind the wheel.
The dangers are enormous, but the unwritten rules of trucking culture will take a long time to change. No matter how much they deny it, trucking companies financially benefit from truckers taking on long shifts, and truckers themselves – especially new ones – are unlikely to turn down the chance of extra pay even if it means upping their amphetamine use.
When Congress proposed drug testing for the trucking industry via hair samples, trucker unions struck back, pointing out that using hair samples to detect drugs was inaccurate and could lead to false positive results. Vice News explains that there exists a split within the industry at large on how to improve safety on the roads. The federal government has taken an interest in the debate; truck accidents accounted for 12 percent of the highway fatalities in 2013, and groups representing driver unions and the trucking industry both sent letters to Congress within the same week in August 2015.
The crux of the issue is how closely trucking companies can monitor their drivers, to ensure that they are not operating 50,000 pound vehicles under the influence, without infringing on the drivers’ right to privacy. As it stands, companies use random urine tests to detect impaired drivers, but the tests only catch drivers who have used drugs within the previous 48 hours of testing. Hair sampling, on the other hand, can show if drug use has taken place up to 90 days before the administration of the test.
However, the Transportation Trades Department union argued that hair sampling “is an unproven tool,” one that could unfairly burden the livelihood of drivers, many of whom are pushing themselves with extra shifts just to make ends meet. Additionally, hair samples can produce false positive results and do not distinguish between a driver who has actually taken drugs and a driver who has merely been in the same room where drugs were being taken. There is similarly a lack of standards and regulation for how specimens of hair are obtained, tested, and stored.
The result, says the president of the TTD, is that there could be “a bunch of bus drivers and truck drivers unfairly branded as drug users because of a false positive test.” Even the type of hair (defined by genetics, ethnicity, lifestyle, environment, and other factors) could trigger a false positive test, which could prove discriminatory against drivers of certain ethnicities; people with darker skin tend to have hair that is more porous, which is more sensitive to drug retention (even secondhand retention) than those with lighter skin and hair.
While trucker unions are looking out for the interests of the drivers themselves, the trucking business sees things differently. The American Trucking Association called the TTD’s reaction “overblown,” saying that hair testing could prevent the amount of truck accidents in which the operators tested positive for drug use (between 2 percent and 4 percent). A senior research analyst for the ATA noted that every single crash is very costly to the individual company, both in terms of property damage and liability for the human life of not just the truck driver but other motorists. Figures from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration show that of the 3,964 people killed in truck crashes in 2013, as many as 80 percent of those fatalities were the drivers and passengers in smaller vehicles.
In writing of how the hair testing proposal has “[ruffled] truckers,” The Hill chronicles the back and forth between ATA and TTD, with each organization trading blows on which one understands the situation best. ATA warned of “thousands of truckers” whose drug use would be caught in hair sampling but will be allowed to operate their rigs if TTD gets its way. For its part, TTD pointed out that if hair sampling is implemented, thousands of other truckers will be unfairly caught in the net, crippling the trucking industry.
Caught in the middle of the tug of war are the truckers themselves, and the realities they have to endure are very far away from the offices of the American Trucking Associations and the Transportation Trades Department. In a study on drug use of long-haul truck drivers and their “commercial sex contacts,” the journal of Public Health Reports interviewed 33 truck drivers and 15 sex workers.
The compiled data suggested that both groups were in danger of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis, through unsafe sexual contact and intravenous drug use.
The harsh working conditions of professional trucking made methamphetamine and cocaine the preferred drugs among the drivers; the mental stimulation forced them into wakefulness and hyperalertness after many repetitive and boring hours on the road. Sex workers reported drivers would also use their meth and cocaine during sexual contact. The sex workers preferred heroin, but drivers are not fond of its powerfully relaxing and sleep-inducing effects.
The researchers learned from the sex workers that produce drivers and furniture haulers were the most common drug-using drivers, because they had to wait for several days to receive their next assignment. This delay, and the resultant drug use, gave them the reputation for being “the party guys.”
There was a split between company drivers and their freelance (independent) counterparts. Company drivers claimed it was independent drivers who used drugs and commercial sexual contacts because the freelancers had to drive longer shifts, were behind the wheel for much longer periods of time, and were subject to harsh and isolated working conditions more so than company drivers. The risk of being caught was higher for company drivers because they could be fired if they failed a drug test (given randomly) or were caught with a sex worker while on the job. Independent drivers tend to be younger, so they tend to take more risks, both in terms of longer shifts and what they do to alleviate the stress and frustration that comes with the job.
Insurance and healthcare are offered to company drivers, but the mobile nature of the work and being away from the company-approved doctors are barriers to accessing treatment. Truckers find it impossible to keep an appointment during their doctors’ business hours; as a result, signs and symptoms of mental health and physical problems go untreated, often prompting the drivers to self-medicate with drugs. One trucker told Public Health Report researchers that “if [drivers] had good health care, they’d probably go,” adding that many drivers are too embarrassed to admit that they picked up a sexually transmitted disease from a liaison with a sex worker. For this reason, they delay their doctors’ visits and continue using methamphetamines and cocaine to make it through their long shifts.
There are somewhere around 5,000 truck stops across America, says Mother Jones, and many of them are bases of sex works and drug trafficking for weary drivers. In this “bustling shadow economy,” truckers get a break from their cramped and lonely cabs. The sex workers (colloquially referred to as “lot lizards” by drivers, though the workers prefer the term “working girls”) are themselves struggling with substance abuse problems, often forced into the work by pimps and their own addictions. When the police make busts, some truckers allow the girls to hide in their cabs, knowing the police can’t search their vehicles without warrants.
Sex workers and truckers develop their own jargon for communicating over the CB radio network; a driver who is “looking for company” is interested in picking up the services of a worker (known as “turning a trick” or simply “dating”). In response, the girls (mostly older women) may reply “40-60-80,” describing the price breakdown for the different kinds of sexual services they offer.
The life is bleak. A filmmaker who documented the routines of sex workers at truck stops compared the women to the drivers who rolled through their truck stops, saying that both the women and the male truck drivers worked thankless, emotionally draining jobs. Each of the women expressed misgivings about their lifestyle, but they justified it to themselves. One of their mantras was: “We’re doing a service for the truck drivers.” Another method was to medicate their doubts away with a constant supply of drugs, which the truck drivers were able to offer in return for sex.
There were times the sex workers would manipulate and take advantage of the fatigued and desperate drivers. “The hardest thing about being a truck driver,” the filmmaker told Mother Jones, “is the isolation.” For all the risks of talking about picking up working girls and using drugs while on the jobs, some of the truckers were just happy to talk to someone about their lives.
Similarly, a program created by the Dallas Police Department takes sex workers away from truck stops and puts them in contact with a recovery program that offers counseling, rehabilitation, and job training. The women get 45 days of live-in treatment, where they are given a space to get clean from their addictions. Anti-terrorism investigations revealed as many as 1,000 working girls offering their services to the 2,000 drivers pulling into truck stops in the general Dallas area. Arresting everyone didn’t work; many of the women needed their sex work to survive, either because they had no other options in life or because their lives were at stake if they didn’t turn tricks for drivers. Other programs are springing up around the country. As much as there is hope that rehabilitation will help these women get away from the sex industry, there is also the chance that this will eat into the drug trade that ensnares lonely and exhausted truck drivers.
But the reality that the drivers themselves face is one that may be impenetrable to standard forms of intervention. Professional truckers lead solitary, grueling lives, and by the time enough attention is given to the deep problems facing the thousands of men and women behind the wheels of American commerce, they’re already on their way. As their trucks rumble on through the night, a snort of meth or cocaine to make it to the next stop or for the next few miles can be the only thing keeping those truckers company.