“At 3:30 a.m. in a Kentucky truck stop on the sixth day of a five-state journey hauling auto parts, Tracy Livingston struggled to wake up.
“Worry over how she would pay a $2,000 ticket for an improperly loaded trailer had meant a restless night. Now she had to get out of the bunk in her Freightliner Cascadia tractor, get diesel and hook up a trailer. All this in pouring rain without benefit of coffee.
“We should be home by now,” she told me, a reporter along for all 2,520 miles. “We won’t hit an open Starbucks for five hours.”
“The nation’s 2 million truckers, who endure back-to-back 14-hour days to deliver everything from aluminum cans to clothing to Christmas cookies. They practice an occupation that kills more of its practitioners than any other, with 525 dying on the road last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Truckers pushed to their physical limits contribute to accidents in which almost 4,000 Americans die each year. Regulations that have let them work 70 hours a week leave them constantly fatigued.
“Fatigue and sleep deprivation are contributors to crashes in all drivers,” said Phillips. “Performance begins to decline after about four hours and is very severely impaired after 10 hours. Accidents happen because of impaired vigilance and delayed reaction time, so you don’t hit the brake as fast.”
“Exhaustion stalked Livingston on an odyssey that lasted from Dec. 1 to Dec. 6, a run from Michigan as far south as Tennessee. Hypervigilance sapped her energy, as did belligerent shippers and unresponsive dispatchers. She used every trick she knew to battle weariness, including frequent consumption of Starbucks Corp. Frappuccinos, snacks, brisk walks at rest areas, listening to audio books and dancing in her driver’s seat. Even her rest periods weren’t restful.
“My 10 hours of break time between 14-hour days are not mine,” she said. “You can go get a glass of wine. I can’t do that. I’m stuck in this truck.”
“Livingston, 46, relies on her $15.65 an hour from Van Buren, Arkansas-based USA Truck Inc. to pay the mortgage on a white clapboard house in Battle Creek, Michigan, that her mother, her son and his girlfriend, her husband, four dogs and 70 guinea pigs call home. She trains student drivers, who ride along with her, for an additional $550 a week. That adds up to about $7,200 a month if she has a trainee.
“Caffeine, Livingston said, helps her focus, particularly during early mornings as she maneuvers her white “80,000-pound killing machine” through traffic.
“Everyone has a biological clock,” she said. “I really fight mine before the sun peeks. That’s the witching hour, and I can’t stay awake.”
“The lawnmower-like sound of a power unit, the rumble of idling rigs and the whooshing of traffic made relaxation impossible.
“After bringing the 2,520-mile six-day run full circle, she parked in Battle Creek and began weekend errands at a food market, where she bought green peppers for the guinea pigs.
“Following dinner and a mojito, Livingston crashed on her leather couch, a combined 305 pounds of great Dane, piled on top of her. She awoke there at 5 a.m. the next day.
“Twenty-three hours remained before she started the run all over again at 4 a.m. “