Trucking lost in translation

March 7, 2017
Is the disconnect with the general public partly a language barrier?

One of the first things I stumbled upon in trucking is a sort of “great divide.” There’s often this big disconnect between heavy trucks, their drivers—even their companies and the industry itself—and the mostly four-wheeled motoring public. I’d felt it from being part of the latter group, but quickly realized there’s a real lack of understanding going on.

Maybe some of it comes from the two very different types of vehicles and what often feels like incompatibility between them on the road, on the one hand transporting people and darting through zero-to-sixties and the other pulling 40 tons and big, rectangular boxes in back. It’s us vs. them and vice versa.

Or maybe it’s more like bad press, where the public hears and thinks about trucking mainly when some awful accident happens and a heavy truck turns a passenger car into an accordion. Dept. of Transportation data has shown time and again that when heavy truck-passenger car collisions occur, a clear majority of the time, the passenger car was at fault. But the public just sees “big truck and little car collided,” and that can fuel a negative perception that becomes people’s reality.

But I’m starting to think this divide is also partly due to the two sides speaking entirely different and/or confusing languages. Back up to that opening, actually, and I’ll point out one example I used: “the industry itself.” Plenty of trucking insiders, myself included, refer to the trucking industry, and I’ve heard at least half a dozen experts and presenters rightly point out that it’s not one industry, but many.

"I went and asked someone outside of trucking what she thought a motor carrier is. Here’s the response I got: 'The only thing that occurs to me when you say "motor carrier" is those trucks that carry cars.'"

- Aaron Marsh, Fleet Owner senior editor

Take even the regulatory agency that handles big trucks in the U.S.: the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, or FMCSA. In everyday speech out walking on the street, have you ever heard someone talk about a motor carrier?

Curious, I went and asked someone outside of trucking what she thought a motor carrier is. Here’s the response I got: “The only thing that occurs to me when you say ‘motor carrier’ is those trucks that carry cars.” In other words, she pictured an automobile hauler.

And that leads us to another big one: FMCSA, or “the FMCSA” as you’ll hear people in trucking refer to it. Get ready for a scoop of alphabet soup: “the FMCSRs,” FHWA, NHTSA, TL, LTL, GVW, GCVW, 3PL or even DEF, GHG2 and NOx (pronounced “knocks”) are some others you’ll hear very frequently. And don’t get me started on ee-el-dees or ay-oh-bee-are-dees, two terms that are tossed around by trucking insiders so much that those things are known more readily as their acronyms.

Here’s another fun one: I once heard a whole educational session on the DVIR, or driver-vehicle inspection report that heavy truck drivers conduct before and after a trip. I don’t have to tell you that for the rest of the Joe Shmoes out there, they’ll think a DVIR is how you watch your favorite TV shows that you couldn’t catch when they aired.

When Fleet Owner and several sister publications collectively launched our new HD Pickup & Van e-newsletter just recently, it brought some real head-scratchers to the spotlight. “Heavy duty,” “severe duty,” “super duty” and other similar terms often are applied and refer to what are, in fact, Class 1-3 light duty trucks and vans.

But something like a Class 6 Ford F-650, now, that’s a “medium duty” truck. Out among the many small fleets you’ll find almost as commonly on America’s streets as Civics and Silverados are a horde of “commercial” vehicles—but really, what we’re trying to say is business vehicles. Commercial motor vehicles are those ones FMCSA regulates that you need a commercial driver’s license to operate.

Trucking is by no means the only industry—or collective of industries—that gets lost in insider-speak and its abbreviations. But in all the cross-talk where the public doesn’t “get” trucking or its real importance in everyday life, I can’t help but wonder if it’s partly a language barrier thing we could work on.

Oh, and meanwhile, there’s one thing I hope we can all agree on. When we say “tranny,” can we please still mean “transmission”?   

About the Author

Aaron Marsh

Before computerization had fully taken hold and automotive work took someone who speaks engine, Aaron grew up in Upstate New York taking cars apart and fixing and rewiring them, keeping more than a few great jalopies (classics) on the road that probably didn't deserve to be. He spent a decade inside the Beltway covering Congress and the intricacies of the health care system before a stint in local New England news, picking up awards for both pen and camera.

He wrote about you-name-it, from transportation and law and the courts to events of all kinds and telecommunications, and landed in trucking when he joined FleetOwner in July 2015. Long an editorial leader, he was a keeper of knowledge at FleetOwner ready to dive in on the technical and the topical inside and all-around trucking—and still turned a wrench or two. Or three. 

Aaron previously wrote for FleetOwner. 

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