What It’s Like to
Drive a Big Rig Truck

by
in

In Short: Tough work.

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I have been driving professionally for over 50 years, all in heavy equipment, mainly over-the-road big rigs from driving solo or part of a team driving with my wife. I have driven 4 to 5 million miles, putting in 60-70 hours per week. And it has been an incredible experience and lifestyle.

Over the years, there have been many improvements to the trucks. They went from hot and rough-riding with two transmissions that I had to shift constantly, to today’s wonderfully smooth-riding trucks with comfortable sleeper cabs and automated transmissions.

Truck on lonely highway.
Photo: Robson Hatsukami Morgan via Unsplash

Even though the trucks have improved, the one constant has definitely been the many terrible roads. It doesn’t matter how smooth-riding a rig can be; if the roads are awful, then it’s a bumpy drive all the way.

I have seen the most impressive sights many dream about. The most gorgeous sunsets and sunrises imaginable, in all parts of the country. There are such unique and spectacular sceneries the U.S. and Canada have to offer. From the east coast to the west coast, and everything in between. From the flat deserts, the prairie lushness in summer, to the western mountains, and the challenges of getting a heavy truck up and over them safely.

The weather is enough to make some people cringe at times; I have experienced some of the nastiest storms and taken the big rig through killer winter blizzards. But I have also been fortunate enough to experience the most perfect weather, with the sun shining above, allowing me to take in the views the road has to offer.

The roads also vary from time to time. First, I can be driving down a wide-open deserted road. Next time, I’m stuck in a traffic jam that boggles the imagination, especially when trying to maneuver 75 feet of tractor-trailer through them.

Driving through a traffic jam is sometimes like playing dodge ball, maneuvering in and out of traffic to avoid cars. Sometimes you meet the nicest and most respectable car drivers, but other times, you meet the ones that like to cut you off and think an 80,000 lb truck can stop on a dime. That can be a rude awakening.

Two qualities a great truck driver must have: parking skills and patience. Parking skills, because trying to deliver in big cities while maneuvering around traffic is an art form. You are sometimes trying to put a 53-foot trailer into a space designed for half that length. Patience because there are days you have to wait 4-10 hours (unpaid) to load or unload.

Drivers need to deal with shippers, receivers, and heavy traffic. It’s also essential to have good intuition to figure out what other people on the road will do before doing it. I am constantly trying to avoid some of the dangerous stunts some car drivers pull around big rigs.

However, getting out of the city and back onto the open road is sheer joy, and I have my freedom again.

And like any job, there are both pros and cons to driving. Sometimes I get bored seeing the same interstate over and over again. It can also be frustrating driving past places I so desperately want to explore but cannot because the load must be delivered on time, and like clockwork, the next one is waiting for me. But all of that is offset by my passion for driving and safely getting across the country once again.

This is a lifestyle, and to me, the pros far outweigh the cons, and it is for a good reason that I am still doing it!

Mat DeWitt has been driving heavy trucks for over 50 years, running all 49 continental U.S. states and 5 Canadian provinces.

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10 thoughts on “Drive a Big Rig Truck”

  1. I have great respect for our over the road truck drivers. Several years ago, out of boredom and curiosity, I decided to go down the rabbit hole called YouTube and see if there were any truckers who put out videos. I found several and have watched a handful of them regularly over the years. It was and still is quite interesting, but the reasons have evolved over the years. Suffice it to say that the frustrations and the tribulations they go through, from breakdowns to loads that aren’t ready when promised, traffic, weather, drivers (both bad and good), and a myriad of other things show me that the men and women who drive these vehicles to get our goods delivered are a special breed and deserve both our thanks and respect.

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  2. Big Rigs and their loads are really the bloodline of America. Without them (esp the drivers) America would grind to a halt.

    If I could dictate driver training for normal drivers, I would insist the driver must have at least 90% passing grade form the equivalent of the Bob Bondurant school of driving. I would include a section where the driver starts in a sports car, get to 60mph, then start braking at a line. Where they stop is marked by a cone. Then the next car would be a mid-size car. As they slide past the point where they previously stopped, an instructor waves to them as they slide past. Repeat for bigger cars, then a U-Haul truck with 4000 lbs. In all cases, they would be waved at as they slide past the previous stopping points. The final step is they are in the passenger seat of a big rig with ~8000 lbs (or the rated max load). Obviously, an instructor with a CDL is driving.

    The purpose is to drill into drivers the amount of time it takes to stop as the weigh of the vehicle goes up.

    I would also favor a law where, if a big rig has a forward looking camera, and some idiot jumps in front of a truck and slams his brakes (obviously not in an emergency situation), the trucker can run them over. That would stop a lot of stupid drivers. Call it the Terminator Law.

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    • I had a huge laugh at that last “law”. I’m not a trucker, but I have huge respect for them … and so I agree with that 100%. Let’s just call it a cleansing of the road.

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    • Re: The Terminator Law: Unfortunately, most of the new trucks won’t let us do that — the automatic braking systems take over and saves their butt.

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  3. As a grocery order writer, I’ve always been appreciative of big rig drivers. I think last year was a bit of a wake up call. It wasn’t the celebrities or sports folks keeping the world turning but us blue collar folks. Loads may have been late, but dammit if we all didn’t work together, to get those trailers empty & back on the road ASAP. Thanks for everything!

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  4. I have the nicest story about two truckers. Years ago, I was driving down a nearly empty highway following (at a safe distance) two big rigs. We were speeding but since I was following them, I figured we were OK. Suddenly, I realized one truck had slowed in front of me (i was in the right-most lane) and the second truck had slowed to block me from passing. Sheltered by these two trucks, we safely passed a very large collection of state police who were waiting for speeders with radar in hand. When we were safely beyond the police, both truckers sped up and we continued on as we had been. Had they not blocked me in, I’m sure I would have been stopped and ticketed that morning. I’d like to thank them for their courtesy.

    I have a similar story: last week I was driving on a mountain highway behind two FedEx Freight trucks. Being familiar with the highway I knew that our two lanes were about to drop to one, so I passed the first truck, and then thought I probably didn’t have enough room to pass the second — but he moved right and signaled for me to go. While that was appreciated, what happened next was intriguing: there was a pickup hauling a trailer behind me, and he thought he should be able to squeeze in too! It definitely wasn’t safe, and the FedEx driver had a choice: slam on his brakes and let the obliviot go, or crowd the pickup driver out and make him brake and fall back. The pro chose the second option.

    When we got to the next town a half-hour later my wife needed a restroom/leg-stretch break, so I stopped at a McDonalds. A few minutes later both of the FedEx drivers stopped to grab dinner, and while we were all waiting we chatted with the drivers and I did get the opportunity to thank them! They certainly had stories to tell of drivers doing the most absolutely stupid things possible; things that could easily get them killed when there was very little to gain. No wonder there’s such mayhem on the highways! It was a pleasure to have a quick chat with pros who do it right. -rc

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  5. As a truck driver myself, I can only agree with Mat. I often tell family and friends that there is no CEO anywhere, in his or her plush top floor corner office, who has a better view than I do.

    Yes, the hours are long.

    Yes, the general public has no respect for the capabilities and limitations of a tractor-trailer (most because they just don’t know, but there are some really stupid people out there, potential Darwin Award winners), and you have to anticipate their next move at all times.

    Yes, you have to respect the schedules of various shippers and receivers, often when they themselves don’t respect them.

    But you meet interesting people everywhere you go, you see so many beautiful sights, it makes it all worth to me in the end.

    Drive safe, everyone!

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  6. Thanks for the window into my previous life!! Held a commercial license (pre CDL) for over 40 years and nearly 3 million miles. Everything you describe is accurate and I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. I retired about 10 years ago and although there was an initial shock of waking up in the same place night after night, I have made the adjustment!! Once again, thanks for the memories!!

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  7. My father was a truck driver, and when he taught me to drive he told me to always wear your seat belt because it was put there for a reason.

    A year or so later, I happened to be along for the ride my father was giving to a next door neighbor because his car was in the shop or something. I got in the back and buckled my seat belt. My father got in and buckled his. Our neighbor got in but didn’t bother to buckle his. My father just sat there. Finally, after a few seconds to a minute, the neighbor asked something along the lines of “Umm… Are we going to go or not?” My father replied “I’m waiting for you to put on your seat belt first.” The neighbor said, “That’s okay. I trust your driving!”, to which my father replied “I trust my driving too! It’s the other idiots out there that I have to share the road with that I don’t trust!”

    Thankfully our neighbor got the point and immediately buckled his seat belt, upon which my father then started the engine and we proceeded on our way.

    I can’t remember whether it was something my father said or whether it was just something I heard somewhere, but I always tell people “Think of it this way. If you get into your car and buckle your seat belt and don’t get into an accident, you’ve wasted only about 2 seconds of your life. But if you get into your car and don’t buckle your seat belt and do get into an accident, you could have wasted your entire life.”

    My dad was an amazing man. A hard worker and wise as hell.

    I miss him.

    It’s never a waste, even without a crash. One of my bad memories driving an ambulance with a critical patient, lights and siren to the hospital, was the guy who saw us and hit the brake hard. No problem, right? Except for the little boy standing on the front seat. The last thing I saw was the kid heading for the dashboard. We had a critical patient: couldn’t even think about stopping, and had to keep going. I’ve always wondered whether the kid was fine, injured a bit, or injured a lot. Your dad was indeed wise, as well as smart. That dad, not so much. -rc

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