Truck Drivers, Heavy and Tractor-Trailer - What They Do

Almost every product sold in the United States spends at least some time in a truck. While planes, trains, and ships are also used to transport goods, no other form of transportation has the same level of flexibility as a truck. As a result, trucks are used to transport everything from canned food to automobiles. Truck drivers and driver/sales workers operate these vehicles.

Drivers are responsible for picking up and delivering freight from one place to another. This may be from a manufacturer to a distribution center, from a distribution center to a customer, or between distribution centers. In addition, drivers may be responsible for loading and unloading their cargo. They are also responsible for following applicable laws, keeping logs of their activities, and making sure that their equipment is in good working condition.

Heavy truck and tractor-trailer drivers operate trucks or vans with a capacity of at least 26,001 pounds gross vehicle weight (GVW). The vast majority of these are over-the-road or long-haul drivers, meaning they deliver goods over intercity routes that may span several States. Some drivers have regular routes or regions where they drive the most, while others take on routes throughout the country or even to Canada and Mexico.

Long-haul drivers are often responsible for planning their own routes. In most cases, operators are given a delivery location and deadline, and they must determine how to get the shipment to its destination on time. This can be difficult, as drivers must find routes that allow large trucks, and must work within the rules imposed by the U.S. Department of Transportation. Drivers must fill out logs to show that they have followed these rules, which mandate maximum driving times and rest periods between shifts. Companies sometimes use two drivers on long runs to minimize downtime. On these “sleeper” runs, one driver sleeps in a berth behind the cab while the other operates the truck.

Light or delivery services truck drivers, often called pick-up and delivery or P&D drivers deliver goods within an urban area or small region. In most cases, they carry shipments from distribution centers to businesses or households. Drivers who work for package delivery services may have a single load and make many stops over the course of the day, while other drivers might have several loads in the course of a day. Depending on the load, drivers may have helpers who load and unload their vehicles. When making deliveries, they may accept payments for cash-on-delivery shipments, or handle paperwork, such as delivery confirmations and receipts.

Specialized truck drivers work with unusual loads. While most trucks carry freight loads in semi-trailers or vans, some carry liquids, oversized loads, or cars. Others carry hazardous materials, such as dangerous chemicals needed for industrial purposes, or waste from chemical processes that must be stored in approved facilities. Drivers who work with these types of loads must follow strict procedures to make sure their loads are delivered safely.

Some drivers, called driver/sales workers or route drivers, have sales responsibilities. For example, many driver/sales workers deliver and arrange goods to be sold in grocery stores. They may recommend that a store increase their inventory or encourage store managers to sell new products. Companies that rent linens, towels, or uniforms employ driver/sales workers to visit businesses regularly to replace soiled laundry. Driver/sales workers may also be responsible for soliciting new customers along their routes.

Work Environment

Heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers held about 2.0 million jobs in 2020. The largest employers of heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers were as follows:

  • Truck transportation - 43%
  • Wholesale trade - 12%
  • Self-employed workers - 7%
  • Manufacturing - 7%
  • Construction - 6%

Working as a long-haul truck driver is a lifestyle choice because these drivers can be away from home for days or weeks at a time. They spend much of this time alone. Driving a truck can be a physically demanding job as well. Driving for many consecutive hours can be tiring, and some drivers must load and unload cargo.

Injuries and Illnesses

Because of the potential for traffic accidents, heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers have one of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations.

Although fatalities are uncommon, heavy and tractor-trailer truck drivers experience one of the highest rates of occupational fatalities of all occupations.

Work Schedules

Most heavy tractor-trailer drivers work full time. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulates the hours that a long-haul truck driver may work. Drivers may not work more than 14 hours straight, comprising up to 11 hours driving and the remaining time doing other work, such as unloading cargo. Between working periods, drivers must have at least 10 hours off duty. Drivers also are limited to driving no more than 60 hours within 7 days or 70 hours within 8 days; then drivers must take 34 hours off before starting another 7- or 8-day run. Drivers must record their hours in a logbook. Truck drivers often work nights, weekends, and holidays.

Education & Training Required

Most prospective truck drivers take driver-training courses at a technical or vocational school to prepare for CDL testing. Driver-training courses teach students how to maneuver large vehicles on crowded streets and in highway traffic. These courses also train drivers how to properly inspect trucks and freight for compliance with regulations.

Some States require prospective drivers to complete a training course in basic truck driving before getting their CDL. Some companies have similar requirements. People interested in attending a driving school should check with local trucking companies to make sure the school's training is acceptable. The Professional Truck Driver Institute (PTDI) certifies driver-training courses at truck driver training schools that meet industry standards and Federal Highway Administration guidelines for training tractor-trailer drivers.

Employers usually have training programs for new drivers who have already earned their CDL. This is often informal and may consist of only a few hours of instruction from an experienced driver. Some companies give 1 to 2 days of classroom instruction covering general duties, the operation and loading of a truck, company policies, and the preparation of delivery forms and company records. New drivers may also ride with and observe experienced drivers before getting their own assignments. Drivers receive additional training to drive special types of trucks or handle hazardous materials. Driver/sales workers receive training on the various types of products their company carries so that they can effectively answer questions about the products and more easily market them to their customers.

Certifications Needed (Licensure)

Federal and State regulations govern the qualifications and standards for truck drivers. Drivers must comply with all Federal regulations and any State regulations that are in excess of those Federal requirements when under that State’s jurisdiction.

Truck drivers must have a driver's license issued by the State in which they live. Drivers of trucks with a GVW of 26,001 pounds or more—including most tractor-trailers, as well as bigger straight trucks—must obtain a CDL. All drivers who operate trucks transporting hazardous materials or oversized loads must obtain a CDL and a special endorsement, regardless of truck capacity. In order to receive the hazardous materials endorsement, a driver must be fingerprinted and submit to a criminal background check by the Transportation Security Administration. In many States, a regular driver's license is sufficient for driving light trucks and vans.

To qualify for a CDL, applicants must have clean driving records, pass written tests on rules and regulations, and demonstrate that they can operate commercial trucks safely. A national database permanently records all driving violations committed by those with a CDL, and issuing authorities reject applicants who have suspended or revoked licenses in other States. Licensed drivers must accompany trainees until they get their own CDLs. A person may not hold more than one driver’s license at a time and must surrender any other licenses when issued a CDL. Information on how to apply for a CDL may be obtained from State motor vehicle administrations.

Although many States allow 18 year-olds to drive trucks within their borders, a driver must be at least 21 years of age to cross State lines or get special endorsements. Regulations also require drivers to pass a physical examination every 2 years. Physical qualifications include good hearing, at least 20/40 vision with glasses or corrective lenses, and a 70-degree field of vision in each eye. They must also be able to distinguish between colors on traffic lights. Drivers must also have normal use of arms and legs and normal blood pressure. People with epilepsy or diabetes controlled by insulin are not permitted to be interstate truck drivers.

Other Skills Required (Other qualifications)

Federal regulations require employers to test their drivers for alcohol and drug use as a condition of employment and require periodic random tests of the drivers while they are on duty. Drivers may not use any controlled substances, unless prescribed by a licensed physician. A driver must not have been convicted of a felony involving the use of a motor vehicle or a crime involving drugs, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, refusing to submit to an alcohol test required by a State or its implied consent laws or regulations, leaving the scene of a crime, or causing a fatality through negligent operation of a motor vehicle. All drivers must be able to read and speak English well enough to read road signs, prepare reports, and communicate with law enforcement officers and the public.

Many trucking companies have higher standards than those required by Federal and State regulations. For example, firms often require that drivers be at least 22 years old, be able to lift heavy objects, and have driven trucks for 3 to 5 years. They may also prefer to hire high school graduates and require annual physical examinations.

Drivers must get along well with people because they often deal directly with customers. Employers seek driver/sales workers who speak well and have self-confidence, initiative, tact, and a neat appearance. Employers also look for responsible, self-motivated individuals who are able to work well with little supervision.

Truck Drivers, Heavy and Tractor-Trailer - What They Do - Page 2

Academic Programs of Interest