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Trucking Through the Years - A History of Truck Driving

There has always been a need to haul freight and supplies. The Roman Empire built roads all over the known world so its armies and the provisions to supply outposts could move easily across the country. In the early American colonies, wagons drawn by horse, mule, and oxen moved along the roads connecting communities. In some places, canals linked rivers for the movement of freight. Eventually, the railroad stretched across the United States in the 1860s, linking a mechanized transportation network that changed the nation. But trains can only go where the rails are.

The Industry That Spawned Trucking

The invention of the automobile meant that people wanted better roads to travel on their own. Companies building automobiles for a growing market needed a way to get those new cars to their new owners without adding mileage to the vehicle. Alexander Winton owned the Winton Motor Carriage Company of Cleveland and is credited with creating the first semi-truck in 1899 to haul automobiles to market one at a time. "Truck Driver Jobs" became a category in the job market but it took a month for a truck to get from Seattle to New York so trucks were normally only used in metropolitan areas where their solid iron or rubber tires had a good surface to move upon.

By 1914, August Charles Fruehauf, a blacksmith in Detroit, built a detachable trailer for a Ford automobile and called his new invention a “semi-trailer.” Other inventions included gear drives that could get the truck moving as fast as 15mph to the astonishment of those it passed by. Weight limits in some states (18,00 to 28,00 pounds) attempted to protect roads from the nearly 100,000 trucks that used them. It would be 1981 before the standard 80,000-pound weight limit was uniform in all states.

During World War I an army of trucks were vital for transporting cargo. Long distance truck shipments were made possible by the development of inflated tires that could support heavier loads and higher speeds. By 1920, more than a million trucks moved goods across America. The diesel engine was introduced, along with fifth wheel coupling systems, power brakes, power steering, and standardization of both trailers and trucks.

After World War II the expanding Interstate Highway System with its controlled access allowed larger, faster trucks to move across the country. This meant federal standardization of weight limits and bridge limitations were needed. To make the transfer of cargo between trucks, trains, and ships easier, containerized intermodal shipping was developed. A shipping container could travel across the ocean to be put on a train and then moved to a flatbed truck for the final leg of the journey without being opened. This development paved the way for retailers to open big box stores in outlying communities. Flatbed trucking companies became one category in a huge variety of trucking enterprises that serviced and connected communities all over the country and the world.

Regulations and Trucking

Transportation and shipping regulations existed before trucks did but the increasing number of trucks on the road meant that trucking legislation was necessary.

  • In 1933, the Code of Fair Competition spurred the joining of the American Highway Freight Association and the Federation Trucking Associations of America to become the American Trucking Association (ATA).

  • The 1935 Motor Carrier Act regulated the intense competition between trucking companies

  • In 1939, the first Hours of Service (HOS) rule limited drivers to 112 hours behind the wheel and a maximum of 15 hours on duty with changes to HOS ever since.

  • The 1956 Federal Aid Highway Act enabled the creation of 41,000 miles of interstate highways.

  • In 1967, the Department of Transportation was created.

  • The 1980 Motor Carrier Act gave more freedom over operations, including hiring and pricing.

  • The 1990s brought the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and increased trade with Canada and Mexico.

  • The Motor Carrier Safety Improvement Act of 1999 created the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

  • In 2008, the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission issued recommendations on the future of funding surface transportation.

All these changing regulations have attempted to keep up with the increasing demand for trucks to deliver the goods that communities rely upon. Regulations directly affect trucking companies and those who work for them because the laws affect profit margins and competition. Many regulations are a response to incidents like 9/11, which increased the security standards regarding Hazmat CDL driving.

Culture and Trucking

The 1970s saw the glamorization of trucker culture with the popular song “Convoy” by C.W. McCall and movies like “Smokey and the Bandit.” Suddenly, everybody knew about CB slang and thought they understood the energy crisis issues causing the independent trucker strikes in 1979. A lot of people longed to be a modern-day cowboy truck driver and many joined the ranks. But that generation of truck drivers is fast joining the ranks of the retired. Even though trucks have long shared the road with passenger cars, many automobile drivers do not respect the difference in how these two very different vehicles operate. Unsafe actions of automobile drivers cause 70% of fatal automobile/tractor-trailer accidents.

The 21st century has continued to change the way driving a truck looks as a career. Trucking companies with an aging fleet have had to replace their trucks and many turned to low mileage used vehicles rather than the latest model. Fuel usage and carbon footprints are common concerns. Increasing competition caused many trucking companies to come close to bankruptcy in the early 2000s. But trucks still are needed to move the freight to where it needs to go.

The tech revolution did not leave truck driving behind. Cell phones haven’t replaced the CB but every trucker has one. GPS tracking gives instant status updates on location. Electronic logs are the norm. Self-driving trucks are not fiction. The category of "Truck Driver Jobs" still can be found in employment opportunity listings and tech skills have merely joined the traditional skills needed to drive professionally.

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