Trucking industry

The trucking industry has a saying, “If you bought it, a truck brought it.” There is scarcely a business or industry in the United States that does not rely on the trucking industry as an essential part of its operations. In 2006, 70 percent of the total volume of freight in United States was moved in more than 25 million trucks carrying up to 10 billion tons of materials.

Native American transport was on foot, horseback, or by canoe. The earliest European settlers used ships and boats for transportation by water whenever possible but expanded the range of land travel to a variety of carts and wagons. In the nineteenth century, railroads were introduced and carried an increasing percentage of the heaviest freight over long distances. Railroads were limited by the availability of the track that had been laid and could transport goods only from one fixed site to another. Beyond railroad depots, carts and wagons pulled by oxen or horses were still required for final delivery to the end user.Trucking industry

Although trucks were invented during the late nineteenth century, it was only shortly before World War II that a combination of gasoline-powered internal combustion engines and the replacement of chain drives by gear drives enabled the development of the tractor-trailer rig. Although the trucking industry grew during World War I, trucks were still limited to very low speeds because they used iron and solid rubber wheels on primitive roads, except in cities where pavement existed. With the development of inflatable tires and the proliferation of paved roads, truck speeds and differences increased. After 1920, the development of diesel engines, power-assisted brakes and steering, fifth wheel coupling, and standardized trailer sizes made truck transportation an attractive shipping option.

Legislation and Regulation

By 1933, all forty-eight states had enacted some type of weight legislation, but the standards varied so much that eight years later, the Interstate Commerce Commission informed Congress that the highly variable truck weight limitations were an impediment to interstate truck transport. The state-based truck weight limits continued until 1956, when the federal government first established a maximum gross vehicle weight of just over 73,000 pounds. In 1974, the Federal-Aid Highway Act Amendments of 1974[Federal Aid Highway Act Amendments of 1974]Federal-Aid Highway Act Amendments set a maximum gross vehicle weight of 80,000 pounds but failed to establish a federal minimum weight. In response, six neighboring states along the Mississippi River did not increase their truck weight limits to 80,000 pounds and created a barrier to interstate commerce. This problem was not corrected until the passage of the Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982.

Another Safety, worker;trucking industrysignificant issue in the trucking industry concerns the rules governing the number of hours that truck and bus drivers are allowed to drive at a single stretch, the total number of hours in a twenty-four-hour period, and the number of hours of rest mandated between driving stretches. Called service regulations, the first rules of this type were enacted in 1938, and the rules have grown significantly stricter as time has passed.

The 1980’s brought a nationwide movement in the direction of deregulation, which was applied to the trucking industry by the Motor Carrier Act of 1980. At the same time, the International Brotherhood of TeamstersInternational Brotherhood of Teamsters union, which had previously been a major force for workers in the trucking industry, lost a series of legal and economic battles. The truckers effectively lost much of their union representation, and lower pay became standard for drivers. Truckers began to face increased pressure to drive longer hours with fewer breaks to maintain a satisfactory paycheck.

As a federal regulation of truck weights stabilized, the trucking industry became increasingly important to the movement of goods over long distances. Railroads continued to be the most efficient movers of very bulky solid cargoes such as coal, and pipelines were used for liquids such as petroleum products. Still most manufactured goods were increasingly carried by trucks. The extensive highway network meant that trucks could travel virtually anywhere.

In 1956, Malcolm McLean developed the concept of Containerizationcontainerized intermodal shipping. Modern containerized intermodal shipping meant that a single container, once loaded, could be transported by ships, trains, and trucks without needing to be reloaded. All forms of transportation benefited by this new system, but trucks seemed to have the most to gain. The total number of trucks increased from 1 million in 1920 to over 18 million trucks by 1970.

Along with these economic and technological developments, there were certain societal changes. As citizens’ band (CB) radios became commonplace in trucks (and later cars), people began to form an image of long-distance truck drivers as modern-day cowboys and even outlaws. The use of CB radios to inform other truck drivers of the presence of law-enforcement officials who could ticket them for speeding or other violations gave long-distance truckers their outlaw image. Gradually plaid shirts, trucker hats, and CB slang became popular with the general public, and motion pictures, country music songs, and even television shows about truckers were created. By the 1980’s, the trucker mania had subsided somewhat. CB radios continued to be used by truckers, but cell phones replaced CB radios for most automobile drivers.

Progress and Pollution

There are certain inherent limits to truck weight and size that affect productivity. Twenty-first century gains in productivity in the trucking industry have come through improved communications and certain transformations in the way that business is conducted. One key issue was to diminish the number of empty loads, which was reduced through modern communications. The development of wireless computers and the Internet has allowed freight brokers to serve as intermediaries and to coordinate freight. Improved communications and global positioning satellites have also improved coordination and productivity.

This has allowed many businesses to improve their productivity by adopting Just-in-time strategy[Just in time strategy]just-in-time strategies for the delivery of supplies. Under this concept, businesses reduce costs associated with excessive inventory and larger warehouses by scheduling more frequent deliveries. Grocery stores have always required frequent deliveries every two or three days for perishable food items, and their costs have dropped as more efficient communication becomes possible. Hospitals have also improved their patient services and decreased their warehousing costs with just-in-time strategies. Retail stores, particularly Wal-Mart, have benefited from this strategy. Adoption of this strategy enabled Wal-Mart supercenters to add groceries to the range of products they offer.

Diesel Environment;airexhaust fumes have always been unpleasant, especially in an urban environment or a concentration of trucks and buses, and the slowness with which the fumes dissipate has long been a concern. The carcinogenicity of diesel exhaust fumes was suspected in 1988 and conclusively established in 2002. In addition to aggravating a number of breathing disorders, diesel fumes emit greenhouse gases and contribute to global warming. This has led to a concerted effort to find alternative fuels. Biodiesel, a nontoxic biodegradable form of diesel fuel in its pure form, has become increasingly popular. New environmental standards limit the amount of sulfur that can be included in diesel fuel. Many cities have begun experimenting with either compressed natural gas or battery-operated electric buses to avoid the noxious fumes from buses powered by diesel fuel. Although the trucking industry is expected to continue to grow, pressures to find alternatives to using diesel and other petroleum fuels will increase.

Further Reading

  • Baiman, Ron, Heather Boushey, and Dawn Saunders. Political Economy and Contemporary Capitalism: Radical Perspectives on Economic Theory and Policy. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 2000. This collection of essays examines the trucking industry from a perspective sympathetic to planning and socialism.
  • Dow, Louis A., and Fred Hendon. Economics and Society. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1991. These co-authors, though strongly influenced by the free-market economics of Adam Smith, look at economics in a social context.
  • Drew, Shirley K. Dirty Work: The Social Construction of Taint. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2007. A sociological study of the perception of various blue-collar trades, including trucking.
  • Stern, Jane. Trucker: A Portrait of the Last American Cowboy. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1975. A popular, somewhat nostalgic look at truckers and trucking.
  • Stern, Jane, and Michael Stern. Way Out West. N.Y.: Harper Collins, 1993. Another popular examination of truckers and trucking.
  • Willis, James. Explorations in Macroeconomics. 5th ed. Redding, Calif.: North West, 2002. This mainstream text examines trucking from a macroeconomic perspective, explaining the impact of trucking on society.


Jimmy Hoffa

International Brotherhood of Teamsters


Shipping industry

U.S. Department of Transportation