Off the Road
As one of the one million or so people in the UK with an HGV licence who isn’t driving lorries for a living, I recently received a letter from the government trying to tempt me back into the cab. It won’t work.
I started off in the 1980s delivering bedroom furniture. This involved being nice to people while carrying heavy loads upstairs and trying not to rip their wallpaper or drip sweat on the carpets. It was gruelling, relentless work and some days there was barely enough time in the schedule to eat lunch. A few of the established drivers set their tachographs (the so-called spy in the cab) to ‘break’ but used the precious down time for unloading instead.
I later delivered non-ferrous metals, such as aluminium and zinc, to factories and warehouses in London, Southern England and the West Midlands. Every afternoon, a grumpy forklift driver (no doubt he was overworked too) loaded me up for the next day and handed me my paperwork, calling me ‘driver’ rather than by name. I’m not sure I learned anything but I saw some interesting places, industrial areas off the Mile End Road where they still had bonfires in oil drums, cavernous metal-processing factories in the Black Country, secretive MOD bases.
Working for an air freight company near Heathrow, I collected boxes of the latest releases from independent record labels around London, such as Rough Trade. Back at the depot, the boxes were loaded into lightweight aluminium air freight containers which I’d deliver to airport warehouses. There’d be long queues of lorries through the evenings and I’d eventually deal with impatient warehouse workers.
I delivered trailers of empty milk containers from a plastics factory to dairies all over the UK, and transported triangular wooden roof trusses that I had to measure with a big stick before I set off, to see which bridges they would fit under. I occasionally drove dustcarts, but the regular dustmen complained that I didn’t drive fast enough.
But I mostly drove articulated lorries for various supermarket chains, hired on a temporary basis through employment agencies. That’s how I spent my holidays while studying for two history of art degrees. The work began early in the morning or late in the afternoon (the industry is renowned for its anti-social hours). A regular eight-hour day was unheard of; shifts could be anything from ten to twelve hours, or sometimes fourteen, if there were delays being unloaded.
A shift would begin at a distribution depot, where I’d be allocated a tractor unit – the front half of the articulated lorry – and given the number of a semi-trailer to collect in the yard. (The development of the semi trailer and tractor unit by August Fruehauf in Detroit in 1914 paved the way for the flexible just-in-time distribution system that undergirds the consumer society we take for granted.) To hitch up, I’d back the tractor unit under the trailer until the tractor unit’s fifth wheel, the horseshoe-shaped coupling mechanism, connected with the trailer’s king pin, a heavy duty steel shaft under the front of the trailer. Once connected, the mechanism snapped shut and I’d tug forward to check the coupling was secure. I’d connect the air brake and electric lines, wind up the trailer’s front legs, check the lights, attach the number plate and go on my first run, usually a local delivery that took a few hours. I’d come back for another trailer for my second, longer run, which could last up to seven hours, or possibly make a collection somewhere like the washing powder factory near the Dartford Crossing.
Dual carriageways and motorways are relatively easy driving in an articulated lorry. But other roads require more concentration, particularly at night and in the rain. Stretches of the A29 to Bognor Regis were hardly wide enough to get a lorry through if a car was coming the other way, let alone another lorry. If the load was heavy bottles of fizzy drinks, as it often was on a hot summer night, the lorry would slow to a snail’s pace on hills and I’d need to work the twelve or eighteen gears (depending on the vehicle) using the range change and splitter box switches. You can’t just cruise along with your brain in neutral and some nights I’d come home shattered.
You’re out on the road on your own, but management are constantly monitoring you through in-cab technology. This is good if it contributes to road safety – by monitoring driver hours, for example – but it also means delivery schedules are often so tight that they add to stress levels (missing your delivery slot because of roadworks or an accident could mean the load is rejected).
As far as driving jobs went, working for the supermarkets wasn’t too bad, and there were 45-minute breaks (the legal minimum) built into the schedule. But I’d never go back to it. I now work in historic gardens management, on a reasonable wage. Even when I started out as a gardener, though, the lower wages compared to lorry driving were worth it for the significantly reduced stress, better breaks, more sociable hours, better camaraderie between staff and a level of training I hadn’t got in the transport industry.
But above all – and I’ve heard this said by other current and former lorry drivers – the worst thing about driving lorries was not being regarded by management, or the general public, as a skilled professional. Lorry driving carries a lot of responsibility. You need a consistently high level of concentration to steer a giant machine safely along the road day after day. You need a knowledge of motoring laws far beyond that of the general driver, for instance about loading limits for different vehicles and weight restrictions. And you need to be able to cope with reckless car drivers who cut in front of you without a thought to your significantly longer braking distance.
The last time I did any driving work was around twenty years ago. If the transport industry is going to re-engage former lorry drivers or recruit new ones it needs to change. It’s partly about pay. But it’s also about offering shorter, more sociable working hours. It’s about offering more realistic delivery deadlines so that some drivers don’t feel they have to work (illegally) unloading through their breaks. It’s about not adding too many deliveries to multi-drop runs. It’s about providing more and better quality rest areas, with clean toilets (highly profitable multinational companies who run petrol stations, please note). And it’s about offering the training and development opportunities that come as standard in many occupations. Under such conditions, the lorry driver shortage might eventually abate. Even then, it would take time.