When Steve Viscelli decided to write his 2016 book, The Big Rig: Trucking & the Decline of the American Dream, which he explained is an academic work that many readers have found informative, entertaining and mainstream, he knew he had to get behind the wheel of a Class 8 to truly understand the driving profession.
“I drove in 2005,” he noted. “I had to do that work in order to legitimately interview drivers. You can’t get a sense of what truck driving is like just talking to people. You have to live it. It’s so physically challenging; it takes over your whole life. You can’t just go do it for a few hours. You have to, like, be on the highway for that 4th of July weekend. It’s hard to understand what that’s like until you actually do it.”
Viscelli found his way into a cab full-time.
“I signed up like anybody else, through one of the big companies. I filled out an application and they sent me a bus ticket, then went to their training school.”
Being on the road meant Viscelli could experience the life and also interview truckers much more naturally than just showing up at a truck stop with pen and paper. He didn’t make it immediately known that he was researching a book, but it turned out not to matter.
“Drivers have a lot to say,” he said. “I was expecting suspicion but didn’t have any of that. Over the years I interviewed drivers every few months, but for the book I did them every day. I would go to big truck stop and meet drivers in the lounge. Very often I had a conversation going and other drivers would overhear. Suddenly I’d have 10 drivers telling me their stories. It was really fun.”
What struck Viscelli most was the incredible hours many truckers put in on the job.
“It’s hard for people to understand,” he said. “For some drivers 80 to 100 hours a week is normal. People think it’s crazy. You’re out in the middle of nowhere trying to work 14 hours a day, because why wouldn’t you? Companies tell you to take your off time and do whatever you want. But you’re tired, and you certainly don’t want to kick back at the truck stop for 4-5 hours. You want to get back home.”
While recording hundreds of opinions on all sorts of trucking subjects, Viscelli was also working, and it didn’t take long for him to know the life did not suit him.
“I knew after six months in the industry that I couldn’t do it much longer,” he admitted. “And the interviews… the hardest thing was the emotional content, hearing drivers who’d been doing it for 25 years. They’d never reflected on their careers, and they thanked me.”
Most of what Viscelli heard about the driving life was not positive.
“Older drivers said they didn’t even know who their own kids were because of the job, or they lost their wives because of the job,” he said. “One man said his kids are 20, 25 years old and they hardly know who he is."
He told me, ‘I’m a successful owner-operator. I used to come home on Saturday night, pissed off and tired. Sleep half of Sunday and roll out Monday morning. And meanwhile, my wife would want me to yell at the kids.’ “
The good money earned made no difference to many veteran drivers.
“The vast majority said they wouldn’t do it again,” said Viscelli. “And they’d never recommend the life to anyone. One said, ‘You want to drive, go ahead. You’re never going to have a girlfriend. If you have a boat, you’re never going to put it in the water. You’re going to have a nice car you never drive. You’ll pay off your house but have toys you never use.’ ”
Behind the wheel
Viscelli’s months on the road provided fun as well as pay and book material.
“It’s a real accomplishment being about to pilot one of those trucks,” he asserted. “There’s a great sense of pride. Mastering it to at least a basic level of confidence and safety was really cool. I still have my CDL. When my wife gives me a hard time about something I tell her, ‘Hey, I’m a professional driver. I’ve got my license right here.'"
“The physical part of moving that truck is cool but really scary. You’re in it for a lot of hours. You see accidents all the time. You know that truck weighs 80,000 pounds. If a car slides into my lane there’s not much I can do other than put my foot on the brake.”
Viscelli, who usually does the teaching, was delighted to learn things himself while on the road.
“When you’re in the daily trucking routine you see where stuff comes from and where it goes in the economy,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if its Bud Light or Huggies. You see the physical movement of the economy that consumers never see. It’s like a behind the scenes tour. Of course, with e-commerce it's becoming even more complex.”
Viscelli experienced first-hand what driving a truck can do to someone’s health. As a long-hauler, he lived in the truck and came to realize there was a price to pay.
“OTR drivers sleep in the truck, and it’s pretty comfortable,” he said. "I’d be out two to three weeks at a time. I’d bring food, fresh sheets. But what you don’t realize is over time the health consequences of living in that truck. You’re always around diesel fuel. You’re always parking at a rest stop or at a truck stop, where trucks are idle. I didn’t realize it until I went out on my own, came home, took my clothes off, took a shower and went to bed. The next day I went into the bathroom and the smell of diesel just knocked me over. It was coming out of my clothes.
“When you’re in that environment you can’t even tell it’s there. There are long-term health consequences of that; truck stop food, obstructed sleep, raised rates for obesity, heart disease, diabetes. All of those are sky high for drivers because they’re living out of the damn machine they operate for weeks at a time. So while it can be immediately comfortable, and with earplugs you can sleep OK, the consequences are more than any worker should have to bare.”