The American Trucker

A “Victory Oil” semi-trailer truck from 1943
A “Victory Oil” semi-trailer truck from 1943

The American Industrial revolution left manufacturers with a common problem…how to get their products from point A to point B. The dilemma was partially solved by railroads, ships and later on by air transport. But something more was needed. They still had the same problem since these modes didn’t get their products to the point of sale.

Before the 1900s, most freight was moved by train or horse-drawn vehicle. Trains could efficiently move large amounts of freight, but only to centralized hubs where it still needed to be distributed by horse drawn transport. The first few trucks introduced were mostly novelties and used basically as rolling billboard advertisements rather than a serious mode of hauling freight. The lack of paved roads and small pay load capacity regulated them to short distances.

Around 1910, technology gave the industry a big boost. Gasoline powered internal combustion engines, improvements in transmissions and tractor/semi-trailer combinations saw trucking, gain in popularity by leaps and bounds. Within a few years the first state weight limits for trucks were instituted. Although originally only four states set truck weights, from Maine’s low of 18,000 lbs to a high of 28,000 lbs in Massachusetts.

US Post Office Truck during 1921 Christmas Season
US Post Office Truck during 1921 Christmas Season

These laws were needed to protect unpaved roads from damage caused by iron and solid rubber wheels used on early trucks. By 1914 there were some 100,000 trucks on the roads. But, a maximum speed of 15 mph continued to limit their use.

However, it was the advent of World War I in 1914 that set the industry in motion. The military used them extensively during that time as railroad congestion began a search for alternative modes of cargo transport, thus sparking increased construction of paved roads.

It was during these years experiments with long-distance hauling began. Inflatable tires capable of supporting heavier loads were developed, enabling trucks to travel at higher speeds. By 1920 there were over a million trucks on America’s roads and improvements were still being made such as the more efficient diesel engine.

By the 1930s trucking was the way to get the job done and it became obvious government would have to implement regulations to oversee its operations and by 1933, all states had some form of weight regulation. It was at this time President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration requested each industry create a “code of fair competition.” The American Highway Freight Association and the Federated Trucking Associations of America began discussing a code of competition.

By early 1934 it was completed and the two organizations had merged to form the American Trucking Associations. Truckers displayed a special “Blue Eagle” license plate on their rigs to indicate compliance with the code. The Motor Carrier Act of 1935 replaced the code of competition and the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC), now defunct, began regulating the trucking industry. Based on their recommendations, Congress enacted the first hours of service regulations limiting hours truck and bus drivers could drive in 1938.

In 1941, President Roosevelt appointed a special committee to study a national inter-regional highway system, but World War II put plans on indefinite hold. After the war the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1944 authorized the designation of the term “Interstate Highways,” but no funding program to build them. Not much was accomplished until President Dwight D. Eisenhower renewed interest in the plan in 1954. How to pay for the huge undertaking spurred long, bitter debates with rail, truck, tire, oil, and farm groups, over who would bear the burden.

After the air had cleared, the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 authorized the construction of the Interstate Highway System, a network of controlled-access freeways allowing larger trucks to travel at higher speeds through rural and urban areas. Also included in this act were the first federal maximum gross vehicle weight limits. In the same year, modern containerized intermodal shipping was introduced by Malcom McLean.

In the late 1950s, The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) began studying roads and bridges and how traffic contributed to pavement deterioration. These tests led to a 1964 decision for weight limits determined by a bridge formula table based on axle lengths, instead of a static upper limit. By 1970, over 18 million trucks were on America’s roads.

The Federal-Aid Highway Amendments of 1974 established a federal maximum gross vehicle weight of 80,000 pounds based on a sliding scale of truck weight-to-length ratio and the bridge formula, but did not establish federal standardized weight limits. However, not all states agreed with the standards. Six neighboring states in the Mississippi Valley, known as the “barrier states,” rejected the plan to increase Interstate weight limits to 80,000 pounds. As a result interstate commerce suffered. The Surface Transportation Assistance Act of 1982 established a federal weight limit minimum for trucks across the country for Interstate Highways that effectively resolved this problem.

The 1970s saw a dramatic rise in the popularity of “trucker culture” when truckers were idealized due in part to their use of citizens’ band radio relaying the locations of police officers, speed traps and transportation authorities. CB radio memorabilia and slang were popular with drivers as well as the general public.

For instance in 1976, the number one hit song was “Convoy,” that glamorized a convoy of truck drivers. The song inspired a1978 film of the same name. But by the early 80s the trucking phenomenon began a steady decline, possibly due to the rise of cellular phone use.

By 2006 there were over 26 million trucks on America’s roads. The American Trucker is truly the nation’s backbone. Without them, the country would come to a standstill.



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Comments 3 comments

aviannovice profile image

aviannovice 4 years ago from Stillwater, OK

And still, truckers are a great necessity. It's too bad that the "laws" governing people's time on the road made a difference, but when something has to be somewhere at a certain time, what can one do because of delays?


JY3502 profile image

JY3502 4 years ago from Florence, South Carolina Author

I was a truck driver one, and I know those laws were needed. Otherwise you'd end up with drivers driving until they passed out from exhaustion trying to make an extra buck.


eHealer profile image

eHealer 4 years ago from Las Vegas

Jay! Your best yet buddy. This is excellent, and I have little interest in trucking, but you have now sparked an interest in it for me. Well written, I am intrigued now. Thank you!

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