Over the years we've dealt with hundreds of 18-wheeler accidents where truck drivers were operating negligently—sometimes illegally—when they hurt innocent people. While we researched those cases we encountered the term outlaw trucking, used in commercial driver forums to describe "glory days" of looser regulations and an easier time breaking the rules for greater personal profit.
It's a little unsettling to see contemporary truck drivers yearning for a time when breaking the law was not only easier but actually celebrated; to better understand the term, I researched outlaw trucking and what it means.
The textbook definition of outlaw trucking is simple enough: Willfully and purposely breaking laws and defying authority while driving a commercial vehicle. The term's practical definition is a little harder to pin down, however: To many commercial drivers, it seemingly relates to (often illegal) acts of rebellion against perceived government oppression.
Frankly, though, most of the practices implied by "outlaw trucking" could also be described another way: Negligence. Willfully acting in a careless manner that puts people in danger, no matter its supposed context, is prohibited by the law. Truckers may personally view egregious speeding, driving heavy, cheating their hours-of-service (HOS) logs, and driving past the point of exhaustion as expressions of an independent spirit, but each and every one is a dangerous personal choice that can put them and others at serious risk. So how did that become something to celebrate?
The Influence of Pop Culture
Songs about commercial trucks and their drivers started appearing in the 1940s, but it was in the 60s and 70s that the profession really gained public interest. Media during that period portrayed truckers as modern-day cowboys and glamorized some of the questionable things they were known to do.
In the 1963 song "Six Days on the Road," for example, Dave Dudley sang about using "little white pills" to stay awake, fudging his HOS logs, speeding down hills using "Georgia overdrive," and avoiding mandatory stops at scales and weigh stations. The famous trucking anthem "Convoy" hit similar themes as it told of truckers banding together and rebelling against service logbooks (which C.W. McCall called "swindle sheets"), low speed limits, weigh and tolling stations, and heavy-handed law enforcement. Several action films from the same era like Smokey and the Bandit, Convoy, and Breaker! Breaker! popularized an image of truckers on CB radios outsmarting and outrunning corrupt and/or bumbling police.
All that made people see trucking as a freewheeling and non-conformist career, which strongly appealed to the individualistic and rebellious spirit of the time. For a few years truck drivers were treated like folk heroes of a sort, and even though the public's fickle attention turned elsewhere the term "outlaw trucking" and its implications endured for commercial drivers and those interested in becoming one.
Resisting New Regulations
Trucking's image slumped starting in the early 1980s, but despite its declining optics it remained a vital part of the nation's infrastructure. Legislation in 1980 also deregulated the industry, allowing for thousands of new motor carriers to enter the field. However, the massive increase in trucks on the road also prompted the government to implement many more rules and laws ostensibly to protect the public—including the eventual creation of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), whose main purpose is "to prevent commercial motor vehicle-related fatalities and injuries."
With "Convoy" still ringing in their ears, many truck drivers saw the government's stricter oversight as little more than pencil-pushing bureaucrats intruding on their livelihood. Some elected to keep dodging weigh stations and fudging their logbooks, to say nothing of dangerously speeding and running overloaded—all of which they romanticized as "outlaw" behavior, framing their choices as resistance to unfair and overreaching regulation.
From the Source
There's a lot to say in the abstract about outlaw trucking, but some real-world examples may help clarify exactly what kind of things its practitioners were known for. Below are some actual quotes from truckers in online forums about some of the behaviors they saw—or even personally engaged in—on the road.
Running 5,000 miles in 6 days by yourself. Thank God for White Crosses [amphetamines]. Going around every open scale because you are grossing 83,000 when some of the states were still 73,280 max legal gross weight. A bingo card from every broker you hauled for and a few you didn't. The good ole' days, how I miss them.
Overweight, speeding, no-log run, Jake brake like it's stuck on, dodging scales, running no-truck lanes, "come get me bears, you gonna have to catch me" mentality...
It's what we did. Nobody stopped us. A load was already waiting on the other end. Spending more than a few hours in the sleeper berth was inconceivable.
Many of the stories were from long-time veterans of the road and referred to the years before deregulation of the trucking market and subsequent regulation of trucking practices, but at least one person argued that many of the same law-breaking behaviors still take place:
There are still plenty of real "outlaws" out there. Running with no authority, photocopied insurance from the small fleet owners other truck, running way over your 14 hour limit. Loading way heavy, just because it pays...These things are all outlaw, and they happen EVERY DAY.
Some testimonies were fond remembrances, others cautionary tales, but most seemed to agree that the whole idea of outlaw trucking was getting cargo to its destination as quickly as possible—and any rules telling them to slow down or be safe were at most "suggestions" to be ignored as the drivers saw fit.
The Spirit Lives On (and It's Still Dangerous)
Some may feel this topic isn't of much concern today, and even many of the drivers telling stories of "sticking it to The Man" decades ago seem to agree that the heyday of outlaw trucking has come and gone. Even if the context of the term has changed, though, some contemporary drivers seem to think their own illegal escapades, such as avoiding scales or tricking the monitoring devices in their big rigs, are in the same spirit. That continued interest in breaking the rules should trouble anyone who has to share the road with truckers, which these days is everyone.
To be clear, most truck drivers follow the law even if they don't exactly embrace it. However, those who prioritize outlaw trucking's freewheeling spirit over the lives of other motorists really should be characterized in less romantic terms, because what they're really talking about is naked self-interest. Unfortunately, simply asking or telling them to stop isn't likely to do the trick; instead, many of those drivers don't learn their lesson until after they've already hurt or killed someone. They can call their recklessness whatever they want as long as they face consequences when it goes wrong.