The roads may have fewer cars on them these days, but for many truckers, the journey feels a lot longer.
by CHRISTIAN COTRONEO
There’s no shortage of people facing extraordinary adversity to help us maintain some semblance of civilization in these pandemic times.
There are the usual suspects — doctors, nurses, firefighters — who make courage under fire seem so routine.
And then there are truckers.
Rain, shine or pandemic, the U.S. relies on about 3.5 million truck drivers to keep goods — the lifeblood of an economy — in circulation.
That includes canned foods and non-perishables like tuna and rice and beans, bound for small stores and shops in every nook of the country. And yes, there’s always a need for more toilet paper on Aisle 12.
There’s also Amazon — and the unending stream of smart speakers, cordless vacuums and pretzel crackers that Americans feel they need at a time like this.
That’s to say nothing of essential medical supplies and the equipment that’s sadly emblematic of our times: masks, ventilators, disinfectant. It’s not just about distributing those goods to stores and homes, but getting the raw materials, like plastic and pulp, to the manufacturers.
All of it is literally a trucker’s burden to bear. And that burden has never been heavier.
Taking truck drivers for granted
“I think people, quite frankly, take truck drivers for granted when things are normal,” Todd Jadin, of Wisconsin-based Schneider, which boasts 14,000 drivers under its umbrella, tells USA Today. “The work they do every day is that much more important right now.”
Sure, driving is a little easier these days — thanks to the millions of Americans who are staying home and trying to social distance the coronavirus to death.
But for truckers, already accustomed to driving as many as 11 hours per day, the road has gotten even longer. That’s because, for all the miles a trucker logs, there’s always been a bright beacon at the side of just about every highway: the iconic truck stop.
Maybe it’s a diner, where a driver can get a meal and even take a shower. Or a parking lot, where the engines finally go silent, and truckers catch some much-needed shut-eye.
The thing is, as Wired reports, those gleaming lights are going dark. Side-of-the-road eateries are closing to discourage public gatherings. State authorities are even shuttering places that specifically cater to truckers — spots at turnpikes that offer showers, parking and bathrooms.
One of American’s biggest travel center operators, TA-Petro, recently closed all of its driver lounges and fitness centers, Wired also notes.
The few facilities still open are crowded and, as you might imagine, an increasingly risky proposition in these viral times.
But that’s one area where you can help. Follow the lead of police officers in Eufaula, Alabama, who help truckers who can’t fit their rigs through the drive-thru — often the only option when restaurant dining rooms are closed.
“We will either go get something for you or give you a ride to the nearest drive-thru (if you don’t mind riding in the back seat!” the department posted on Facebook. “If manpower is such that we cannot assist, we will secure someone that can.”
Truck stops are closing down, giving drivers fewer opportunities to take a load off.
Truckers are parents, too
And truckers face other hurdles unique to these times.
“If a school system closes down, our employees may not have child care,” T.J. O’Connor of Kansas-based trucking-and-logistics company YRC Worldwide, tells USA Today. “Or we have a driver go out there to make a pickup and there’s a sign on the door that says one of the employees tested positive and they’re closed. What do you do?”
But these days, too much is riding on a trucker’s cargo for them to simply stay home.
“Times like this, people need to realize that everything you have is brought to you by truck drivers. Right now, we’re the ones out there taking chances on our health and our safety to make sure there’s food in the grocery stores,” Robert Stewart, a Pennsylvania-based trucker tells CBS News.
In other words, they deserve our admiration now more than ever.
As Deb Labree, an independent owner-operator based in Missouri, tells the industry journal Freight Waves, “When this pandemic is over, I hope truckers who were a huge part of keeping America moving and the shelves stocked realize they have achieved hero status in my book.”