A Different Trucking Life

Don Schneider says today’s OTR driver is a different person than the trucker of a quarter century ago when he was Schneider National’s new president and CEO.

In the past quarter century, changes in what a driver can and can’t do behind the wheel have made dramatic changes to an over-the-road trucker’s working life.

We asked Don Schneider, chairman of the board of Schneider National, America’s largest truckload carrier, his thoughts on the changes because he has been in the thick of things trucking for the past 25 years. Schneider, 66, succeeded his father as president and CEO of the Green Bay, Wis., company in 1974 and handed those titles over to his successor, Chris Lofgren, in August of this year.

“In my mind the most overwhelming, most dramatic change was the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 that began deregulating trucking,” says Schneider. “This had the biggest impact on a driver’s life than any other change in the past 50 years. Competition was everything and the question became what can you deliver and what is your price, and it meant drivers could go just about anywhere and haul just about anything. Before that there were major limits on what could be hauled and where.”

From a driver’s perspective, says Schneider’s general counsel Tom Vandenberg, the 1980 legislation dramatically changed what a driver had to know how to load and to haul safely and efficiently, and suddenly required that the driver get used to a lot of new origins and destinations.

“There was a lot more stability in a driver’s life before deregulation,” says Schneider. “After 1980 there was a continuing pressure on drivers to be more productive and efficient. It affected a lot of drivers. Their lives became less predictable, they had to start managing a lot of unpredictability as they planned their routes.”

Equipment changes have also rearranged the way truckers get through the day. And trailer sizes have an especially big impact, says Vandenberg. “The size, length and width regulations for trailers changed, and we went from 42-foot or 45-foot trailers that were 96 inches wide to the industry standard today that’s 53 feet and 102 inches wide. The bigger trailers required a driver learn new skills. But they did learn, and it’s been healthy change both for drivers who can carry more and therefore earn more, and for safety because it has kept a check on the number of trucks on the road.”

And when trailer lengths changed, he says, regulations focused on the length of the trailer not the total length of the tractor and trailer, so companies could pull them with regular trucks and a lot of drivers could get away from the cab-over model used in the past to meet length requirements.

Weight limits rose in 1980 from a 72,280-pound limit to an 80,000-pound limit. “Drivers” says Schneider, “got to be more productive.”

“The amount of training that a driver goes through today has changed a great deal since the
late ’70s,” says Schneider. “Back in the ’70s drivers were usually trained by other drivers. Now we have driving schools, and in-house driving schools, that require all sorts of capabilities before you can get out on the road. Just take one example – we have skid pads at our in-house schools, and we freeze them in winter and flood them in summer and a driver has to know how to handle them. We teach drivers what it feels like to have another truck pass you at speed – just to get the feel before you have to do it out on the road for the first time. That’s a far cry from having your buddy teach you a few basics and off you go as it was in the ’70s.”

Drivers’ lives have also seen a major impact from the increasing tendency of manufacturers to use on-time deliveries as a way to minimize – or get rid of – inventory. “A driver has to manage his arrival,” says Schneider. “Back in ’77 if a truck didn’t arrive on time the manufacturer would get what he needed from the warehouse until it did. Today at, say, an automobile plant, what a driver unloads in the morning is coming out as part of a car by the end of the day. If a carmaker gets 80 truckload deliveries a day and one is late, that one could shut the plant down. That puts a lot more pressure on a driver, and from the time he loads until he gets to the plant, he has to be aware of his progress.”

Another major impact on a driver’s life came from changes in communication. Back in the late ’70s a driver could sit on hold at a pay phone for hours, or spend hours driving around trying to find one and to park his tractor-trailer so he could call in. “We installed in-cab communication in a test fleet back around ’84,” says Schneider. “There was a feeling that the drivers would hate it, you know, ‘big brother’ is watching you and knowing what you’re doing. Wrong. Once they tried it, drivers loved it and they fought to get it into their trucks. Now drivers lives were changed because they knew where they were going, knew if their load was ready, knew all sorts of things like that at the touch of a button.”

Vandenberg says federally mandated drug testing also changed life on the road for truckers. “It caused some anxiety among drivers, but it was done to clean up the industry. It was a good balance between individual rights and safety,” he says.

Schneider says brakes have also changed significantly. “Most of the equipment we ran years ago didn’t have anti-skid brakes. When we started going through changing over we were experimenting with various technologies. The government came up with a change and said we had to have these certain sort of brakes. So they went on to the trucks but they were unreliable and people were killed. The government realized that you have to prove the technology, completely, before it’s mandated. I think you’ll see the same thing with the new emissions engines – they haven’t been proven over time on the road doing real work, and we’ll see all sorts of problems down the line if we have to use them.”

One regulatory change that was good government came in the mid-1990s. “The government was thinking about mandating a European-style back bumper for trailers that had a pneumatic device on it,” Vandenberg says. “It wasn’t deigned for U.S. docks and would have been a bust. They decided that more visibility would be the best way to go and by using new tape we got an effective, and very reasonably priced, fix.”

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