Trucker kings of the road drive romance into a dead-end : Out of americ a

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The Independent Online
Washington - Here is my version of the American nightmare. I have not been assaulted, robbed, shot at or swindled, so the experience will sound pretty tame. But try driving on the Washington ring motorway - the infamous Beltway - when the weather is a bit dodgy and the trailer-trucks are out in force.

Now, by and large, American drivers are a pretty well behaved lot. They are not anarchic like the Italians. They do lack the cut-throat aggression of the French. Like the Germans, Americans favour big and powerful cars. Unlike the Germans, they do not make a habit of burning up the outside lane of the autobahn at 120 mph, headlights ablaze and tailgating any slower mortal with the temerity to block their path. The US, on the other hand, is the land of that great leveller - the 55 or 65 mph speed limit. Which means there is no escape from torture by a giant trailer-truck. Romantic? As far as I'm concerned, they're simply the most fearsome form of automation yet devised by man.

Do not misunderstand me. I have nothing against the truckers themselves. Most of them are light years away from the conventional tough guy image of 20th century folk-lore, of transcontinental vagabonds, careering down the Interstate in a juggernaut with a six pack at their side and a woman at every rest stop. Most of them do not belong to that legendary institution called the Teamsters Union.

These "kings of the highway" are family men trying to earn a living. Generally they are non-union, squeezed for every last mile of performance by freight companies for whom delivery times are the difference between success and bankruptcy. Many drivers don't get home more than once in three weeks. The hours at the wheel are long, safety regulations more intrusive by the year.

On the road, human companionship is limited to colleagues' voices on the CB radio, and the chatter of the hosts of those special pre-dawn talk shows for truckers, purveying weather reports, traffic news and plaintive country music. That much of the cliche is true. But can it really be that much fun; day after day, night after night, listening to Nashville's finest, half-hypnotised by the darkness and the road markers flashing by?

And if it's such a great job, why do people leave in droves, usually having worked for a company for a year or less? These days the problem is what the industry calls "driver shortage". In today's booming economy where more civilised jobs are plentiful, that shortage is getting worse. Still, sympathy for a trucker can be hard to come by, especially when you're on the Beltway and a couple of them perform the one-two squeeze play.

Now the Beltway may be Washington's eight-lane ringroad, but it's also a segment of I-95, the great road artery of the east coast, running 2,000 plus miles from Miami to the Canadian border. More important, I-95 is infested with trucks. One second you can see trees and open country: the next, daylight vanishes and your car is trapped in a sheer-sided metal canyon, moving at 60 mph or more. And that canyon can be terrifyingly narrow: for some of these behemoths, about as long as a cricket pitch and 7ft wide, standard traffic lanes give only six inches clearance on either side.

These are arguments you cannot win. At such moments you remember the stories about drivers asleep at the wheel, of booze and drugs on the job, and how a touch of the brakes can send a truck's rear end jack-knifing across the highway. But how to escape? These 40-ton monsters can go at least as fast as you. Shake them off, and they or their kin will soon be thundering up behind you again. Slow down, and ones behind you will replace them.

But are they really that dangerous? The figures offer little comfort: in 1993, accidents involving heavy trucks killed nearly 4,000 people, including 400 drivers. Despite the barrage of regulations - many of them dating back to the Thirties when roads were far emptier and refrigerated trucks a rarity - in some states drivers are required to take no more than eight hours rest between shifts as long as 15 hours. Small wonder that not drink or drugs, but falling asleep, is the biggest single reason for accidents. So much for that romantic image. Driving on the Beltway may be hell. But who'd be a trucker?