The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 14, No. 3 (Fall 2012)

Dignity and the Professionalized Body: Truck Driving in the Age of Instant Gratification

Benjamin H. Snyder

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 14.3 (Fall 2012). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Fall 2012

(Volume 14 | Issue 3)

Alvaro and I follow Interstate 40 east as it carves a wedge-shaped gap through the Smokey Mountains. He has just spent the last five hundred miles of our trip telling me how stressful long haul truck driving can be. Tight deadlines, an erratic sleep pattern, short-tempered shippers, traffic, weather—his work involves navigating myriad contingencies in order to do one thing: be on time. After several hours of talking about stress, I ask, “what brings you back to the job?” “I like the rush,” he replies. “Like when you’ve been driving all night, and pushing and pushing, and you get there, and your body and your hands are shaking, and your vision is just like….” He can’t find the words to describe his feelings, so he gestures forward with both hands to make the image of a narrowing passage: “I love that feeling.”

Alvaro is one of dozens of American truck drivers I talked to and rode alongside over the last three years as part of a larger study on time pressure, stress, and busyness in the American workplace. Like many drivers I met, Alvaro has a unique knowledge of the limits of his body. I would argue that, because of this specialized knowledge, he has a “professionalized body.” Those two words do not often appear together when we talk about work today. A professional is more often thought of as a knowledge worker. He or she has specialized knowledge of concepts and procedures gained through formal training that instills a deep commitment to work as a “calling.”

My experiences with truck drivers, however, have shown me that what appears on the surface to be “unskilled” labor actually relies on a professional attitude toward the body that calls on workers to cultivate highly specialized forms of corporal expertise. To have success in the industry, drivers must develop an understanding of their body rhythms—sleep, attention, motivation, and adrenaline—and learn to manipulate these rhythms in order to facilitate the flow of freight. However, the very institutions within the industry that require the professionalization of drivers’ bodies—motor carrier firms, shipping and receiving departments within the nation’s companies, and the federal agencies that oversee driver safety—do not acknowledge drivers’ specialized knowledge and their corporal commitment to the job. Drivers’ professionalized bodies are thus an important but largely invisible foundation upon which the contemporary logistics system is built. To put a finer point on it—when you click the “Place Your Order” button at Amazon.com, for example, you are probably unaware that you have remotely clicked on a truck driver’s body. Because of this invisibility, many drivers I talked to feel misrecognized. They must find sources of dignity within a system that simultaneously relies on and denies their expertise.

Time and Space

The central dynamic that calls on drivers to professionalize their bodies is the relationship between time and space in their work environment. Most American truck drivers are paid by the mile but regulated by the hour. They are paid either a certain number of cents per mile driven or a percentage of the freight bill upon delivery. Either way, only a moving truck “pays the bills.” Time is money for truck drivers only insofar as it relates to space. In fact, it is probably more accurate to say that, for them, space is money. The commodification of distance encourages drivers to move freight quickly from origin to destination. However, if left unchecked, pay-by-the-mile also encourages drivers to drive more miles in a day than their bodies can safely handle. Thus, even though their livelihoods are geared more to space, drivers need some set of regulations on their time. If the industry is to be both productive and safe, drivers cannot work “on their own time.” Hence, the industry has developed the Hours of Service Regulations (HOS).

The HOS are drafted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA). Based on dozens of commissioned laboratory studies of driver fatigue and sleep, they set precise limits on the maximum number of hours drivers may work and the minimum number of hours they must sleep in order to prevent fatigue-related accidents. These rules are known as the “14-hour rule,” “11-hour rule,” “10-hour restart,” and “sleeper berth provision.”1 Drivers are held accountable for these rules by keeping logbooks. Logbook violations are met with hefty fines.

14-Hour Rule. Also known as the “14-hour clock,” this rule stipulates that drivers can work a maximum of 14 continuous hours before they must go off-duty, thus creating the functional equivalent of a shift-work system. Drivers punch in for a “shift” of driving when they start their vehicle and must shut down their vehicle, or punch out, after 14 hours. Importantly, the 14-hour clock is a continuous countdown timer. It counts down the minutes even when the truck is stopped, even if unforeseen events, such as traffic jams, bad weather, mechanical failure, or delays at shippers occur.

11-Hour Rule and 10-Hour Restart. Within the time “window” created by the 14-hour rule, drivers may drive a maximum of 11 hours, at which point they must take a minimum 10-hour break. After completing this “restart,” drivers regain, as they call it, “a fresh clock,” meaning they may work another 14-hour shift and drive another 11 hours. Unlike the 14-hour clock, the 11-hour clock counts down the minutes when the truck is moving and stops when the truck is stopped.

Sleeper Berth Provision. Within each shift, drivers must log a minimum of 8 hours “in the sleeper berth”—the rear section of the truck equipped with a bed. Drivers may take these hours whenever they wish, but they must take them consecutively. They may not break that time into smaller periods of sleep. Most drivers plan to take their sleeper berth time during their 10-hour break so as not to cut into their revenue-producing hours during their 14-hour shift.

Having been structured around shifts of clock hours, the HOS rules model the driver’s day on the template of a factory assembly line. Sociologists and historians of time have shown that factory work has historically relied on three types of “time discipline” on the part of the laborer in order to create a labor force that operates efficiently, continuously, and consistently.2 Scholars call these disciplines “standardization,” “regularity,” and “coordination.”3 Standardization requires workers to keep exactly the same schedule as others in their position. Regularity requires workers to work in a routinized and repetitive fashion, with little variation in the pacing and timing of work. Coordination requires workers to smoothly connect the motions of their bodies with other workers, allowing pieces of products to be “handed off” without “wasting” time in transition. These disciplines allow managers to use the precise beat of the clock to track workers’ bodies as they move through time-space and fine-tune these movements for maximum efficiency.4 Much like a factory work schedule, then, the HOS regulations provide a standardized, clock-based temporal framework that aims to create a regularized routine. Routinization gives drivers’ movements a degree of predictability that facilitates surveillance and coordination.

To summarize, under the current HOS rules, a driver’s day should ideally consist of 14 hours on duty and 10 hours off duty—a structure that is meant to mirror the 24-hour circadian rhythm of the human body. On-duty time can consist of a maximum of 11 hours of paid driving and 3 hours of non-driving (non-paid) work. Off-duty time should consist of a minimum 8 continuous hours of sleep plus 2 hours to eat, shower, do laundry, and get refreshed for the next shift. This is the ideal scenario. During my observations, however, I rarely saw a driver use all 11 hours of available driving time (his revenue-producing hours) because of the numerous delays that can occur while driving long distances. Thus, drivers frequently work many hours within a given shift that are functionally unpaid.

Rhythm Expertise

The HOS rules imply that driving, like any kind of “unskilled” labor, can be carried out under the same model of time as factory work. But truck drivers do not work in a factory. As drivers consistently emphasized, long haul truck driving is not easily understood in the language of clock time. As one driver explained, “my time isn’t so much time as it is miles. I don’t look at time as hours.” Pointing forward toward our destination, he continued, “we’re 22 miles away. At this speed, that’s 20 minutes. So, our ETA is 4:15. Hours aren’t just hours. It’s distance and the HOS, and speed—that’s how we experience time.” Truck drivers experience time as highly spatialized and context-dependent, unlike clock hours. In addition to the hours on the clock, drivers must be attentive to any number of rhythmic patterns that figure into a particular driving scenario and impinge on their speed and efficiency. These rhythms include the speed of shippers and receivers to load and unload freight, fluctuations in traffic, the availability of safe parking at truck stops and rest areas, the effect of terrain and weather on gas mileage, and the rhythms of the body. Truck driving is thus better understood in terms of the synchronization of rhythms than in terms of shifts of clock hours.

Rather than shift workers, then, I think truck drivers are best described as “rhythm experts.” Their expertise lies in a specialized ability to link the mechanical beat of clock time, which governs both the HOS regulations and the appointment times of shippers and receivers, to the complex patchwork of rhythms that affect the speed of freight. More often than not, the task of linking the abstract time of the clock to the concrete time of freight falls upon the driver’s body. Drivers use their body rhythms—wake-sleep cycles, digestion cycles, shifts in adrenaline and cortisol, etc.—to convert clock time into freight time.

I witnessed many demonstrations of rhythm expertise while riding alongside drivers, but one day in particular stands out. One afternoon in October 2010, Alvaro and I arrive at a poultry plant in northwest Arkansas to pick up a load of frozen chicken due in Crawford, Virginia, by Sunday afternoon. We find a space to park in the freight yard. Rows of loading docks puncture square holes in the side of a featureless building. A chain-link fence topped with barbed wire cordons off acres of cement with truck parking. Alvaro and I get out and walk across the yard toward the shipping office, dodging clumps of chicken feathers as they float across the ground in the breeze. We enter to find the clerk, who sits behind a glass window, visibly frazzled. It is Friday, and he is probably anxious for his shift to end so he can get on to his weekend. Alvaro politely asks if his load is ready, which has been scheduled for pick up between 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. (it is now 2:00 p.m.). The clerk rudely barks, “I’ve got seven things I gotta do right now before I even get to you. Wait in your truck and I’ll let you know when it’s ready.” Alvaro takes his paperwork and politely asks, “any idea how close the load is to being rea…” The clerk cuts Alvaro off before he can finish, “I’ll let you know. Just keep your CB on.” Alvaro says nothing and backs out of the office. “I won’t be talking to him anymore today,” he says to me. He explains, “when I was younger, I used to get pissed off about that kind of thing. But now, I just stay cool. What’s the point of getting my adrenaline up for that guy? If he gets mad at me, he might screw me by putting me at the back of the list [to get loaded].” We get back in the truck and sit with the cab facing the loading dock door, which has two lights. A flashing red light means the load is not ready. A green light means it is ready. Right now, the red light is flashing.

4:45 p.m. Alvaro and I have been passing the time in pleasant conversation. He makes a few phone calls to his wife and six kids in Mississippi just to check in. The appointment window is nearly closed, but there are no signs of the load being ready. I ask Alvaro if we should check with the shipping clerk again. “Nah. What’s the point? He’ll just get pissed again. They’ll call us when it’s ready.” I ask him how he is able to avoid boredom while he waits for a load. “I don’t get stressed about waiting,” he says. “I got everything I need in here—satellite TV, internet, bed. I guess you’d say I’m a patient person.” We continue to chat, occasionally checking to see if the red light has turned green.

7:00 p.m. We are now far past our scheduled pick-up window. If the load is not ready soon, Alvaro’s 14-hour clock will run out, and he will have to take a 10-hour break, even though he has only done a few hours of driving today. That means he will have spent the majority of his shift waiting here without pay. Moreover, by being forced to take a long break, he will then have trouble making his appointment time on Sunday. Since we first parked at 2:00 p.m., Alvaro has been logged as “in the sleeper.” This is a strategy that drivers frequently use when they encounter an unexpected wait. By logging himself as in the sleeper, he is, as drivers call it, “protecting my clock.” In this case, if Alvaro ends up waiting so long that his 14-hour shift runs out, by being logged as in the sleeper that whole time, he will at least have gotten a jump start on fulfilling his requisite 10-hour break and 8 consecutive hours of sleeper berth time. Thus, he will be that much closer to being able to start another shift.

However, while Alvaro’s logbook says he has been sleeping, he has actually been awake. Sleeping during this moment is risky. First, because there is no indication of when this load will be ready and because he is incommunicado with the shipping clerk, there is a chance that by going to sleep now Alvaro will miss the call on his CB that his load is ready. If that happens, the clerk will likely not come out of his office to follow up, but will just let Alvaro sit there and waste what are becoming precious minutes of driving time. Second, Alvaro has sleep apnea, which has been brought on by a decade of sedentary work that has left him dangerously overweight. He says, “I should probably try to get some sleep right now, but because of my sleep apnea I have to be careful.” His doctor has prescribed the use of a special mask, called a CPAP, which he wears over his nose and mouth to keep his airway open and promote deep sleep. He says that if he goes to sleep with the CPAP on, he will sleep so deeply that it will be difficult to wake up again if the shipper calls after, say, an hour. He will have to wake up from a deep sleep and then drive in a more groggy state than if he had just stayed awake. Given the unique spatio-temporal constraints of this moment, then, deep sleep is inefficient and potentially dangerous.

8:33 p.m. We get a call from Brian, Alvaro’s dispatcher, who wants to check on the load. Alvaro complains that he is starting to get tired and that he needs to get going soon if the load is going to be on time. Brian suggests, “well maybe you should try getting some sleep now so you can get rolling again right away when the load is ready.” Alvaro gives a long pause and responds, slightly annoyed, “Brian, you know I don’t work that way, man. When I go to sleep, I go to sleep!” Brian says, “I know, I know. You run it however you see fit.” They hang up. Alvaro and I continue to wait, now staring at the blinking red light praying that it will turn green soon.

9:30 p.m. Alvaro finally crawls into the sleeper berth against his best wishes. He looks back at me in the passenger seat and says, “I gotta try to get some sleep, man. I could be screwing myself right now, but it’s either sleep now and drive groggy or not sleep at all and drive tired.” Since he does not know if he will be leaving sooner or later, he has to at least attempt to sleep in order to create a somewhat functional body state. He decides to take a nap without the CPAP so that he does not sleep too deeply. He settles in and quickly falls into a shallow sleep that is characteristic of sleep apnea. He begins to snore loudly. The snoring is interrupted periodically by a shallow breath and then silence. No breathing. Then a kind of loud snort as his body tells itself to keep breathing. This wakes him up slightly. He shifts positions. Repeat.

11:30 p.m. Green light! I cannot believe my eyes. A green glow fills the interior of the truck, replacing the red pulses that have been marking the slow passage of time since this afternoon. I can feel a tension in my chest lighten that I had not noticed until just now. I wake Alvaro and tell him the load is ready. He sits up and looks at me through slit eyes. He groans and, without speaking, slides into the driver’s seat and starts the engine. He looks very groggy but manages to expertly back the truck to the now-loaded trailer. After some paperwork, we finally pull out just after midnight. We have just waited for 10 hours.

On the way to the interstate, Alvaro says, “we had better try to at least get some miles in today, otherwise we’ll be late.” Although Alvaro has had just 2 hours of real sleep, his logbook reads “in the sleeper” since 2 p.m., which means he has “slept” at least 8 hours and has taken a 10-hour “break.” According to the logbook, then, he is now eligible to start another shift. “We’ll just see how far we get before I feel like we need to stop,” Alvaro says. “That sleep did not make me feel good, man. I am tired.”

1:50 a.m. After nearly 2 hours of driving, Alvaro says he thinks he should probably shut down for the night, even though he has 12 hours left on his 14-hour clock. He would like to get more miles in, but he is feeling too tired. I am feeling exhausted too, barely able to keep my eyes open over the last hour. We pull into a tiny truck stop somewhere along Interstate 40. It quickly becomes clear that every space is occupied. Much to my disbelief, Alvaro pulls back onto the interstate to see if we can find another truck stop with available parking.

3:32 a.m. Over the last hour and a half, we have stopped at three more truck stops and one rest area. They have all been completely full. We pull into another truck stop—a fifth attempt at parking tonight. Yet again, it is full. Alvaro tries to remain optimistic. He turns to me with a wry smile and says, “looks like we’re going to Little Rock, man!” The chances are slim that there will be any parking between here and Little Rock (another 120 miles away). So, Alvaro decides to push on to a bigger city where there will be more parking. Plus, he informs me, by that time spots will begin to open up as other drivers start their shifts.

Alvaro pulls back onto the highway. My head is bobbing up and down as we drive. I can barely keep my eyes open for more than a few minutes at a time. Alvaro keeps complaining that his eyes are burning. “That’s how I know when I’m at my limit. But, we don’t really have a choice [to stop] at this point.” I look over at Alvaro periodically. I never see him doze off, but he eventually positions himself so that his right elbow is resting on the steering wheel, allowing him to prop his head up with his right hand and steer with his left hand. I assume this keeps his head from bobbing up and down. He rolls down the window and lets the cold autumn air stream into the cab. The chill is bracing and forces our eyelids open. Every now and then the truck veers slightly, but Alvaro keeps it going remarkably straight. At some point (I do not record the time in my field notes) Alvaro pulls into a gas station. He gets out and starts walking around the truck. He hops back in after a few minutes and says, “now I’m just working with my body. Sometimes you just gotta get out, take a walk around, breathe some fresh air. You gotta get the blood pumping again.” We drive on.

5:08 a.m. Dawn approaches. We finally pull into a small truck stop on the outskirts of Little Rock. Alvaro does a lap around the lot, and at first, I get the sinking feeling that we are again out of luck. But then we see one spot in the corner of the lot. It is a tiny spot, and Alvaro pauses in front of it. “I don’t know if I can do this right now, man,” he says. He eases the truck into position and starts to back in slowly just inches from the two trucks on either side of us. The angle is a little off, so he pulls out and repositions himself for a second attempt. Success! Despite having just driven 5 hours in the middle of the night on 2 hours of sleep, Alvaro has managed to safely maneuver his 52-foot trailer into the tiniest of spaces without a scratch. He shuts off the engine, crawls into the sleeper berth, and throws on his CPAP. I follow closely behind, climbing into the top bunk. We fall asleep in seconds knowing that, despite the risky drive tonight, we are now well positioned to get this load of frozen chicken to Virginia right on time.

Indignity

My experience with Alvaro showed me in very concrete terms what I had already learned intellectually through dozens of interviews: truck drivers live syncopated lives, rushing in the off beats of everyone else’s daily rhythms in order to deliver goods to American consumers when and where they want them. Our national desire for instant gratification is built on the material substrate of truckers’ bodies. On this particular night—a more extreme instance of similar nights I spent on the road—multiple temporal patterns conspired to create a risky driving scenario that Alvaro was forced to negotiate using his body. By carefully timing his sleep, by skillfully propping his head up while driving, by knowing when to open the window or step out of the truck to “get [his] blood pumping,” Alvaro demonstrated a professional knowledge of his body’s capacity for attention, fatigue, and alertness. Through these manipulations, a late load, held back by the unpredictable hiccups of the logistics system, was converted into an on-time load, thus allowing American consumers to eat chicken, for another day.

Unfortunately, despite providing this essential service to the economy, many drivers I spoke to talked of a pervasive sense that the sacrifices they make each day for the job go mostly unrecognized. Their perception is that most Americans see them not as the “backbone of the economy,” but as “just some dumb trucker” whose job is so simple, so mindless, that anyone could do it. This message comes from a variety of sources but is conveyed most clearly by two parties: the FMCSA and shipping and receiving facilities.

Many drivers find that the inflexibility and one-size-fits-all nature of the HOS regulations contradict drivers’ conception of themselves as professionals. One veteran driver put it this way:

The thing I resent the most is that the people in the FMCSA treat us all the same.... I’ve got...over 30 years of driving, close to three and a half million safe miles. But yet I’m treated like I’m a rookie. I know my limits. If I want to drive 11 hours today, I’ll drive 11 hours. I know I can lay down 700 miles. Some days, if I want to drive a thousand, I should be able to say, “I can do a thousand miles today.” No problem. I know what my limits are and when I’m tired. I guess the point I’m trying to make is: I don’t need a babysitter.

Many drivers see the FMCSA as a kind of judgmental “big brother” figure. One driver noted how other types of professionals who, for example, work in an office are not treated with the same degree of scrutiny over their time. They can extend their workday to fit whatever task or project needs to be completed.

Take for instance—you’re in your office and you need 15 or 20 extra minutes to finish your day. You call your wife and say, “I’m going to be 15 minutes late.” That’s our workday [too]. You just say, ‘thirty minutes is what I need to get done.’ But yet it comes down on us monetarily.

This driver notes that, just like knowledge work, truck driving is task-oriented. Success in the job is marked not by completing a shift but by completing a run. Yet, he points out, truck drivers are not given the same degree of temporal flexibility as knowledge professionals. If a driver finds that he needs, say, 14 1/2 hours to make it to his destination, he risks a fine (as high as $10,000). As one driver put it, “we have so many people [who] want to squash that thumb down—like big brother or daddy wanting to squash that thumb down on his son in order to make him act straight.” He resents being infantilized in this way. “If you take the pressure off, and let us, the professionals, do what’s right and do what’s safe, we’re going to do it.”

While many drivers I talked to had resentments toward the FMCSA, some just took the HOS for granted as “the way things are.” However, there was not a single driver I encountered who had nice things to say about shippers and receivers. The indignities drivers experience when interacting with clerks and dock loaders were a painful reinforcement of the sense of misrecognition they feel more generally. The most poignant of these indignities occurs during the frequent long waits, like Alvaro and I experienced, that happen without justification. As one driver put it:

[Shippers] show complete disregard for my time. They don’t know what I’ve been through in the last few days to get the load there—that I’ve gotten no sleep. So when they say things like, “we’ll call you [when the load is ready]” and give you a nasty look when you ask how long that might be, I get so pissed.

Especially problematic is an obvious structural mismatch between motor carrier firms and shipping facilities that exacerbates drivers’ feelings of powerlessness. Clerks and loading dock employees are typically paid by the hour, so there is little incentive for them to work fast and to keep track of the speed of individual loads. For drivers, by contrast, each minute spent not moving is potential revenue wasted. As a result, drivers frequently experience disrespect in the form of aimless waiting. One driver recounted his experience delivering to an upscale supermarket in downtown Chicago:

They force you to sit on a hard bench for 4, 5 hours and wait to unload when you could be out there [in your truck] sleepin’.… Would you like to sit on a hard bench for 4 or 5 hours…and watch these people unload you and taking their time doing it? And joking around? “Here’s a driver, who cares about him?”… Anymore, nobody appreciates us, the work we do and the hours we put in out here.

The problem here is structural—a mismatch of incentive systems—but the lived experience of that temporal structure is deeply symbolic and infused with moral emotions. It is yet another representation of a culture of infantalization that drivers experience on a daily basis. As one driver commented, “it wouldn’t take much to make waiting [at a shipper] better for us. Just common courtesy, like if [shipping clerks] could just give me some kind of estimate—doesn’t matter if it’s 4 or 10 hours, I don’t care—that’s still better than ‘we’ll call you.’” Drivers understand and accept the many inefficiencies of the logistics system; however, that these inefficiencies are continually pushed downstream to the driver without justification feels disrespectful because, more often than not, drivers are held responsible for working around these inefficiencies using their own bodies.

Dignity

Despite the indignities of the job, many drivers I talked to remain proud of themselves and their work. They frequently constructed dignity around a conception of themselves as perseverant and rugged problem solvers who are willing to get the job done even when the risk is high. For example, one driver elevated punctuality to an almost sacred status. When I asked him, “what excites you about the job?,” he replied:

A part of me wants to say that I really like the—if it doesn’t seem odd—the challenge of it. Because, to me, I take a lotta pride in the fact that I haven’t been late with a load. Not ever. And to be able to sorta do what it takes to, on a day-to-day basis, pick up a load and get it where it needs to be and get it there on time. Takin’ into consideration all the issues that we’ve talked about here today—the drive and the fatigue, the traffic—and still on a daily basis do a good job. I take a great deal of pride in that.

As this driver indicates, the task of delivering freight to a precise time-space coordinate is deceptively difficult. So, regardless of an external reward, completing this task with excellence can be intrinsically rewarding. Reveling in the challenge of constant punctuality is one of the signs that a driver has cultivated a professional attitude. As another driver noted, “I actually like the 14-hour rule, in a way, because it makes you plan everything out that much more precisely. It rewards those of us who are good at problem solving.”

Other drivers constructed dignity around virtues like conscientiousness and vigilance. For example, one driver mused:

I feel like I’m a better person inside the truck compared to outside the truck.… I’m more of a conscientious person. I’m aware of my surroundings more. I guess it’s almost the same thing when you’re a parent. Like when I’m with my daughter, my eight-year-old.… I’m not as loose as I normally would be because I gotta be aware of everything around me.

Drivers frequently discussed watchfulness and the ability to focus their attention, especially through periods of boredom, combined with an ability to make quick, potentially life-saving decisions, as key virtues for which they are particularly proud. One driver described it this way:

Knowing what other drivers are gonna do before they even do it. It’s like you can sense it, you know?... Peripheral vision or whatever they call that. [Turning his head back and forth] You just kind of keep yourself going back and forth noticing everything. Be observant; that’s all. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve backed out of something cuz I knew something was gonna happen. [My truck is] eighty thousand pounds—you could fucking kill somebody, you know what I mean?

As another driver remarked, “whenever I’m driving behind a car and I see mom, dad, and the kids in there, I imagine that is my family in there. I couldn’t live with myself if I killed someone with my truck.” Drivers frequently expressed deep respect for and a healthy fear of the power and responsibility of driving a massive vehicle around the general public. The kinds of skills required to conduct themselves safely in this environment—caution, unwavering attention, quick thinking—were a distinct source of pride. At least when things are going right, driving even provided moments of transcendence for some. As one driver put it:

You try to push yourself…and once you get going, then I develop a rhythm and a flow.… I get in the truck. Boom, 4 hours until my first stop. There for a half an hour. Okay. Boom, next stop. Five stops in a row and you feel like you can just go on and on and on.… That’s when you get into a rhythm. It’s like a quarterback. They’re throwing one pass after another. The receiver’s catching. He throws an incomplete, but no interceptions; then he throws 5 touchdowns in a row.… Once he gets into a rhythm, he’s like Johnny Unitas, Joe Namath, “Slingin” Sammy Baugh, all those great ones that ever played the game. He’s got it all rolled up into one—can’t touch ‘em. Same thing with this job.

Truck drivers are anything but trapped in the rigid temporal structure of the HOS. They are readily capable of turning the logistics system into a source of meaning and identity by taking pride in particular “temporal virtues”—vigilance, punctuality, constancy, quickness, and focus. Despite the ignominy of working within a system that, in their eyes, misrecognizes them, the challenges of the job provide opportunities for excellence. Cultivating temporal virtues made them feel like better drivers and, for some, like better people.

However, there is a cost. By using their bodies to link clock time to freight time, their lives are placed at great risk. Not only do drivers have higher rates of on-the-job fatal injury than almost any other American worker,5 they also are at higher risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and sleep disorder than virtually any other occupation.6 These “lifestyle risk factors,” as studies of driver health call them, result from a forced choice between the needs of the body and the needs of freight that drivers negotiate every day. Their professional attitude toward this choice provides the foundation upon which our retail stores can be replenished, our produce can be kept fresh, and our internet orders can gratify us when and where we want them.

Endnotes

  1. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, “49 CFR Parts 385, 390, and 395 Hours of Service of Drivers; Driver Rest and Sleep for Safe Operations; Final Rule,” Federal Register 68.81 (28 April 2003): 22, 456–22, 517.
  2. E. P. Thompson, “Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,” Past and Present 38 (1967): 56–97.
  3. Paul Glennie and Nigel Thrift, “Reworking E. P. Thompson’s ‘Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism,’” Time and Society 5.3 (1996): 275–99.
  4. Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (New York: Vintage, 1995).
  5. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Fatal Occupational Injuries by Occupation and Selected Event or Exposure,” Economic News Release (U.S. Department of Labor, 2010).
  6. S. Dahl, et al., “Hospitalization for Lifestyle Related Diseases in Long Haul Drivers Compared to Other Truck Drivers and the Working Population at Large,” Work 33.3 (2009): 345–53; Lisa N. Sharwood, et al., “Assessing Sleepiness and Sleep Disorders in Australian Long-Distance Commercial Vehicle Drivers: Self-Report Versus an ‘At Home’ Monitoring Device,” Sleep 35.4 (2012): 469–75.

Benjamin H. Snyder is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Virginia and a Dissertation Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. His research examines the social construction of time and space in the contemporary American workplace and its relationship to meaning, identity, and morality.

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