Been There, Done That

Truckers Are In Danger and So Are We All

By RICK MELLERUP | Feb 21, 2018

Welcome to the final chapter of the story of Little Ricky Mellerup and his family’s 1965 cross-country camping trip from Vermont to the rugged coastline of California and the Pacific Northwest and back. It is a tale I will end with a wary look toward the future.

I’ve already shared memories of the magnificent sights we encountered, epitomized by the Grand Canyon. I’ve also recalled stark or eerie sights such as the forlorn Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument in Montana and immense husks (herds) of giant jackrabbits in Colorado. Finally, I took a panoramic view and tried to show how the oft-mundane enormity of this nation  – the hundreds of miles of corn in Iowa or timber in Oregon or dust in West Texas  – is the root cause of the deep Red vs. Blue divide that currently afflicts this not-so-United States. Country mice and city mice have different needs, wants and concerns.

But, no matter where we nomads traveled in the summer of ’65 there was always one constant: trucks!

Of course, a 10-year-old would be fascinated by the sight of huge double-rigs barreling down the road in the Great Plains or open carriers heaped with produce in California. Sometimes, though, the semis could be downright frightening.

Most of our travels took place on two-lane roads, the interstate system still being a work in progress. Many were almost empty in the vastness of the countryside until the serenity was broken by the roar of massive Peterbilts or Kenworths, bursting out of sunset glare or suddenly filling our rearview mirrors before they blew past, rocking our station wagon in their wakes like a fast powerboat does to a dinghy. They were especially intimidating in mountain passes, bearing down on us from the rear on steep downhill grades, barely able to control their speed, tempting Dad to pull off onto a runaway truck ramp to let them to pass.

Well, truckers will likely become frightened themselves, and perhaps even more frightening to both the public and republic, in a short time.

Long-distance truck driving is one of the few fairly lucrative blue-collar jobs left in the heartland. A December 2016 article in “Business Insider” stated some 7.1 million persons, or 6 percent of the U.S. working population, are truck drivers, with 1.6 million being of the long haul variety. It can be a crappy job, with average long-distance truckers working 70-hour weeks while watching their health steadily decline due to constant sitting and horrible diets and sleep schedules and seeing their marriages fall apart due to absence. Still, the average $40,000 annual income is a godsend in the hinterlands. “Business Insider” said truck driving is the most common occupation in 29 states.

Self-driving vehicles are the buzz these days. Most people think they’ll become the norm in 20 years or so, but many AI experts are predicting they’ll become ubiquitous in a decade. If that sound impossibly optimistic, remember how quickly cell phones went from the size of Maxwell Smart’s shoe phone to the size of a deck of cards and were transformed from simple squawk boxes to handheld computers with much more power than all of the mainframes used by NASA to send a man to the moon. Either way, the clock is ticking as surely as Marisa Tomei’s biological clock in “My Cousin Vinny.”

Self-driving long-distance trucks may be the vanguard. Putting them on autopilot makes total sense considering many of flyover country’s roadways are flat and straight. That development will kill many more jobs than the demise of coal and American steel put together.

Truckers can be an ornery lot when threatened.

I took another memorable car trip in February 1974 when a college classmate and I traveled home to New England from Ohio during spring break. State police and National Guardsmen stood watch over interstate overpasses to keep independent truckers, striking because of the extraordinary price of diesel caused by an OPEC oil embargo, from tossing debris at traffic. We broke down in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night on Interstate 80 in Pennsylvania. A 2-mile trudge through a snowstorm took us to a tiny town where, after waking up what seemed like a hundred baying hounds, we found a bed and breakfast. A man scratching his ample belly opened the door, called his wife, who prepared some rooms, and invited us to sit in the living room, where another guest offered us a beer.

“Did you see that truck burning on the interstate?” the guest asked. “That was mine.”

He’d broken down, too, and put his cab out of its misery by artfully torching it. He couldn’t make a living driving anymore, so he’d take the insurance and figure out what to do next.

I listen to a lot of the Patriot Channel on Sirius XM these days, balancing my MSNBC intake with “Breitbart News Tonight” or “The Mark Levin Show.” A huge percentage of their callers are truckers who already don’t care much for the government and its trucking regulations, taxes, gun control and immigrants and are getting downright gnarly. When  – not if  – their livelihoods are threatened by automation, look out!

The elites and lawmakers still don’t get it. I recently watched a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing regarding self-driving automotive innovation. When senators asked a panel of industry speakers how self-driving vehicles would affect employment, they all testified that, with retraining, the new industry would actually create a huge number of jobs. Yeah, sure, long-distance truck drivers, not to mention taxi and Uber drivers, are going to be suddenly turned into engineers and artificial intelligence experts. Yet not a single senator pushed back on the claims that millions of Americans wouldn’t be made expendable.

Of course, when those tech leaders and lawmakers are flying to D.C. from their home states, even the reddest of Red states, they don’t notice trucks, or the cauldron of revolution and resulting tyranny that is bubbling up in the land.

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