We’re spending more time behind the wheel than ever; in 2017, The West Australian reported that drivers in Perth spend over 600 hours a year in the car, and there's no doubt that the stats are similar, if not worse, for Queensland.
The reasons for our time spent driving on the road couldn’t be more different; from work commutes to holiday road trips, to postal deliveries. But one of the most common types of drivers, that most know nothing about, are truck drivers, including what they do, how long their routes typically are, and what it’s like to face endless stretches on the open road, totally alone.
And it appears we’re only going to share the road with more of them in the near future. In April this year, Country News wrote that the amount of goods that needs to be freighted via trucks is set to double over the next 10 years. So to learn some more about this mostly unknown type of driver (who are likely to be among some of the best you’ll ever meet), we spoke to Mat Dockerty, who runs the Australian-based blog Diary of a Truck Driver.
Mat travels through four states in a 64.5 tonne, 620hp, 26 metre long truck, averaging around 5,000 kilometres each week on the odometer.
Truck drivers follow a much different work routine than most Australians, with irregular hours and lengths of shifts; starting the day in one location and often ending it hundreds of kilometres away -often in the dead of night. Covering all that road and all the jobs in between takes time, so it’s no surprise truck drivers work early mornings and long hours that far outpace many that sit behind a desk. Mat says he works up to 72 hours a week, and that his job isn’t just driving, but plenty of other things, including loading and refuelling.
“The average kilometres for an interstate driver is 4,500 a week, with an industry average speed of 75 kilometres per hour, so driving would be 60 hours,” he says. “Start and finish times vary greatly. Sometimes it’s a 7am start; other times it’s an 11pm start, it depends on the freight and the trip. In reality, it’s hard to define a start and finish time, as you sleep and live in the truck.”
Long distance driving isn’t just a job for truck drivers, it’s a lifestyle. Finding yourself thousands of kilometres away from home, facing down another long drive, and possible delays, can eat away at family time, which Mat says is one of the biggest issues for truck drivers. Once you get home, it’s probably not long until you head off again, and there’s bound to be an unavoidable clash with something important.
“Family and personal life become hard to find time for, especially when there’s not much left of the week,” he says. “Mostly it’s one night at home and then hit the road again. Interstate, you're usually home one night a week with four weeks holiday each year. Being away isn’t too bad, that's until you miss your child’s birthday, first day at school, or a wedding anniversary. There's also times when something bad happens and you’re still three days out.”
Sometimes spending upwards of 300 days a year on the road, it’s easy to think that sitting alone behind the wheel, accompanied by nothing but stretches of highway and the rising sun, would be a recipe for some extreme feelings of never ending solitude. But for Mat, that has never been a problem; in fact, there’s company all around you.
“I’ve never struggled with loneliness, you have to be your own best mate,” he says. “You make a lot of friends on the road; generally you give them a wave and a five-minute chat on the UHF and then not see them for a few weeks or months.”
Those in a semi-trailer have much larger loads than those in cars, and thus different responsibilities as a result. So how do we share the road to make sure we all get to our destination safely? Mat says that impatience is the biggest issue with everyday drivers, and that simply waiting and following a truck’s lead is the best thing to do.
“Being behind a truck is safer than being in front but they all want to be in front,” he says. “Also, indicate, then brake, to show clear and timely intent; most people brake first.”
With such a lifestyle behind the wheel that can be very taxing, there’s little wonder that truck driving has a high turnover. To Mat, he believes there’s two reasons as to why people leave the road behind; low barriers to entering the industry that lack adequate education on what drivers will encounter, and turnover from one company to another.
“A Commercial Drivers Licence (CDL) similar to USA could better educate drivers about load restraint, fatigue, vehicle dynamics and attitude,” he says. “The ease of entry and high gross income can attract drivers that aren't fully aware of the commitment; 70 hours a week isn’t for the faint hearted.”
Mat also says that the industry lacks adequate advocacy and protections from the government and companies. “Below award wages are a huge problem as are unofficial workplace agreements,” he says.
“The majority of drivers don’t understand the awards or how super works,” he adds. “Again, this reflects the standard of drivers entering the industry, but also the traditional lack of organisation and communication that has been the historical norm. If the industry invested in drivers rather than trying to cut employment costs, they’d profit tenfold.”