Commonwealth Chronicle

Online News Coverage of Central and Southwest Virginia

Going inside the truck cab (Part One)

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This story was originally published here.

Robin Steely’s used Freightliner truck is his “season pass” to see the country. In his 19-year career as a trucker he has gone deep sea fishing, seen Mount Rushmore, walked the same Black Hills that Crazy Horse once roamed, and attended more high-proile sporting events than he can count.

Robin Steely's son longs to be a long-haul trucker like his father. But the owner-operator hopes his 13-year-old quarterback completes his education instead. (HELEN COUPE/The Rockbridge Report)

Robin Steely's son longs to be a long-haul trucker like his father. But the owner-operator hopes his 13-year-old quarterback completes his education instead. (HELEN COUPE/The Rockbridge Report)

“The best part is seeing the country. I’ve seen, I’ve been, I’ve driven all 48 [states],” he said. “Just seeing the country abroad is unbelievable.”

A Nashville, Tenn. native with a disarming smile and a diamond-studded left ear, Steely decided to satisfy his travel lust when the local music company he worked for went out of business. He bought his own truck and has hauled freight ever since.

But now he says he would get out if he could.

“Right now, it’s rough. The economy is rough. If I could find something around the house that paid I’d go do that. Park this [truck] in the yard right now and go do that.” Then he offered to sell his truck to a camerawoman.

A combination of wanderlust and the need for a stable income draws all kinds of people from all over the country to trucking.  But the income isn’t as steady as it once was. The deregulation of the trucking industry in 1980 may have quadrupled the number of truckers on the road, but it sliced their incomes.

Most truckers in the late 1960s made about $60,000 a year. Today, the average is barely more than half that — $35,000, according to the American Trucking Association. The recent recession has added insult to injury, forcing many truckers to drive more miles and retire later than they had planned.

Most truckers fall into one of two business models: the owner-operator, and the company trucker. Owner-operators buy their own cab and get their own contracts. Company truckers are paid on a wage per mile basis to work for one trucking company, which sets up contracts with different shippers.

Owner-operators can make a lot more than company truckers, but expenses and risks are a lot higher, too.

It’s now more affordable than it used to be for a trucker to start his own business as an owner-operator. Before the recession hit, a trucker could buy a new rig for about $120,000. Now that same truck costs only $90,000.

But life as an independent owner-operator isn’t free from financial stress.  Everything from fuel to oil changes to repair work comes out of the trucker’s pocket. Steely said he recently had to pay $4,000 to fix his truck and get it back on the road.

Those are costs that company drivers don’t have to worry about. The company covers all operating expenses and provides its drivers with in-truck communication satellite devices that tell drivers the most effective way to get from one place to another.

Big companies such as J. B. Hunt and Schneider pay their drivers the top-tier rate of about 45 cents per mile. With the economy the way it is, more truckers prefer to work as company drivers. As businesses with reduced output are cutting down their distribution costs, owner-operators, who are paid by the load, suffer.

Steely said business has never been worse in the almost two decades he’s driven as an owner-operator.

“What I’m seeing is that everyone has to cut costs,” Steely said. “I’d say one of the top four costs of your company is your freight, and they’re trying to cut it down, cut it down, cut it down, and they’re driving it down pretty good.”

Ray Chism, an owner-operator from Memphis, Tenn., found a way to cope with the economy while doing his part to protect the environment. Using cooking oil from restaurants like KFC, Chism makes his own bio-fuel once a month, when he returns home. The week he spends at home is enough time for him to make enough fuel to last him for a substantial part of his journey.

“If I can make my own fuel for a dollar-five a gallon, then I’m gonna win,” Chism said. (to be continued)

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Written by beckybratu

September 22, 2009 at 7:11 pm

One Response

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  1. […] her travels across America. Watch the video and then read about a trucker’s life on the road here, here and […]


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