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May 2021

Pandemic Helps Drivers Shed Stigma

By Kenneth Heard, Arkansas Money and Politics  | May 10, 2021

It’s taken a global pandemic to help alter the image of the truck driver from the pot-bellied, amphetamine-guzzling road hog portrayed in movies to the hero who braves the virus to deliver necessary goods to stores.

Truckers first took a negative blow in the 1971 Steven Spielberg movie Duel, which featured a young Dennis Weaver spending 90 minutes driving from a smoke-belching, gas-guzzling tanker truck that terrorized him on a two-lane California highway. The truck driver was never clearly shown in the film, giving the truck a more evil, ominous role.

That concept was furthered in Maximum Overdrive, the 1986 dud written and directed by Stephen King. In that film, trucks came alive and trapped travelers in a truck stop. Actor Emilio Estevez resorted to using a rocket launcher to blast a Western Star 4800 diesel truck adorned with a goblin mask on its grill.

When truck drivers were shown in movies, they usually were criminals. Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed were hired to haul beer illegally across state lines in the 1977 movie Smokey and the Bandit, and Reed returned to the road a year later in High Ballin’.

And don’t forget films like White Line Fever in 1975, Breaker, Breaker in 1977, Convoy in 1978 and Coast to Coast in 1980.

Movies aren’t the only thing slamming drivers. The FBI once concluded that the trucking profession was convenient for serial killers after investigating several cases that involved truck drivers across the country. A 2013 Reuters survey revealed 12.5 percent of U.S. truck drivers tested positive for alcohol use, and 20 percent admitted to using marijuana.

“It seemed like every time you’d turn on the television, there’d be a lawyer advertising about truck wrecks,” said Gabe Stephens, co-owner of C.C. Jones Trucking in North Little Rock. Firms like Morgan and Morgan, a national legal chain with offices in all 50 states, peppered late-night television programs with such advertising.

“But, since the pandemic, you don’t see as much,” Stephens added.

“I think people realized how essential the trucking industry is,” said Shannon Newton, president of the Arkansas Trucking Association. “It connects where what you need is to where you are.

“People all stayed in place during the pandemic quarantines. But they still needed the food and water. They saw how the truck drivers brought it to them, despite not knowing where they could stay on the road due to the virus.”

Despite the improved image of truckers, there is a national shortage of drivers, the American Trucking Association reported. There are 3.5 million truck drivers in the United States, the association noted in a news release issued earlier this year. However, there are about 63,000 vacancies in the trucking job market this year, and the industry is predicted to need 174,000 new drivers by 2026.

Darla Nation, an advanced instructor of certified driver training at Arkansas State University-Newport, said she is aware of the negative image of truck drivers.

“[We] strive to change the perceptions …” she said. “Truck drivers have always been essential, but the pandemic has truly brought to light the dedication and skill it takes to keep our trucks on the road.”

Stephens said his drivers continued to haul produce during the pandemic, and that helped better the truck driver’s image in the public eye.

“I think it was eye-opening to the public,” he said. “If you need something, we bring it.”