Tractor-trailer truck driver Richard Coffin estimates he’s driven over a million miles in his 30-year hauling career, and, oh my, how times have changed. When he steps into his 2004 purple Freightliner Columbia, he braces himself for a cutthroat highway ballet.
“I sit down behind the wheel and say, ‘Here we go again. What will I put up with today?” he said.
The veteran 18-wheeler owner-operator says that routes he used to be able to do in 12 hours or less are unmanageable now, with congested roads and crazed drivers.
“There’s too many people and not enough pavement,” says Coffin, who delivers preloaded tanks of liquid sugar to plants in New York, Maine, and Massachusetts. “Nothing is the same as it used to be. Fellow truck drivers used to help each other out, and the streets used to be a saner. Now it’s every man for himself.”
At 3 a.m. on a recent cold wintry Sunday, Coffin stepped up into the truck cab for a five-hour run to Langhorne, Penn. He arrived at 7:45 a.m. and then had to wait for a Lewiston, Maine-bound load that wasn’t available until 7 p.m.
“I should have taken a nap but couldn’t sleep a wink because it was the middle of the day. I read an entire book and sat there twiddling my thumbs,” says Coffin, who finally left for Maine at 7:30 p.m., arrived at 3 a.m., and sat in front of the building until his scheduled delivery at 5 a.m., then – at long last – headed back to Worcester. “I shouldn’t admit this, but I didn’t sleep until Tuesday night,” says Coffin, who says there’s nothing routine about the trucking industry. “It’s a grueling 24/7 schedule.”
Truck drivers like Coffin comprise one of the nation’s largest occupations, encompassing 3.2 million jobs. Although the recession and fluctuating diesel prices have hit the trucking industry hard, with less freight shipped nationwide, there will always be a need for truckers, especially big rig drivers. Demand for heavy and tractor-trailer drivers is expected to grow 13 percent to 2018, especially as older drivers retire and economic growth resumes.
Q: What do you haul?
A: I haul corn syrup, liquid sugar or various types of fructose, delivering it from sugar processing plants to large bakeries. Customers pipe it from the tank into their facility.
Q: What’s your cab equipped with?
A: A refrigerator, sleeper berth, stereo system where I can play my iPod, and of course, a CB radio, so I can talk to other drivers. I have capabilities for a TV but haven’t put one in, because I don’t want to be living in my truck too much.
Q: Your job can be tough, but what are the perks?
A: There’s no one to bother you; when the money’s good, it’s great; and I can take a vacation whenever I want to.
Q: What advice would you give to someone interesting in entering this field?
A: Unlike when I first started, now you have to go to tractor-trailer training school, where you’ll learn how to adapt to pulling a unit, doing maneuvers, and shifting. But the school vehicles are typically only 8 to 10 speeds, which is different from 18 speeds, so once you’re really on the road, that takes more practice.
Q: What’s the worst traffic jam you’ve ever been in?
A: If you leave New York City after 1 p.m., and head on I-95 North, you’ll be in ‘The 45 Mile Back-Up.’
Q: What do you think about on the road?
A: I think of things I could have done better, or should have done better. And I listen to music. I have 10 thousand songs on iPod, from heavy metal to jazz. Without music I’d go out of my mind.