Line One
Journeys
Is that a woman behind the wheel?
OOIDA member Ellen McCoy recalls how it was when trucking companies started using women as team drivers

Years ago, seeing a woman driving a big truck was a  head-turner. I started trucking in Arizona in 1979 for Highway Distribution Service. The owner then was George Prall, and he’s now deceased. He changed my life when he acknowledged me as an individual rather than a “subservient.”

He actually teamed me up with another single woman 20 years my junior, Chris, and named us “Georgie’s Girls.” He knew he would take a lot of flak from all of his men drivers. His exact words were: “If I can keep you South (out of the snow) and if you promise to call me at least three times a day whether you think you need to or not, I’ll bet I can make one half-assed trucker out of the two of you!” A team of two women – not a husband/wife team – was unheard of.

His policy was unique in another way, too. Which one of a team is the first driver? Answer: the one behind the wheel. Our whole experience made for two damn good solo truckers.

Chris went on to own her own truck. I left trucking a decade ago because of an injury. 

Learning to drive a semi truck was not easy, nor did it come cheap. Back in ’77 when I started, “Ye Olde Truck Driving School” cost a lot of money. In those days, such schools were high on price and low on learning. Some were downright rip-offs, a moneymaker’s dream, the answer to America’s sudden need for more truck drivers.

In the late ’70s, the Department of Transportation was cracking down on trucking companies and their drivers’ logbooks. TV programs, especially “20/20,” found a ready audience with a “Killer Truck” episode. We always thought that campaign was instigated by the railroad industry. The crackdown meant that drivers keeping two or three logbooks and running coast to coast in record time would have to change their method of operation.  

Because shippers could not extend the time allowed for travel, a trucking company’s only alternative was to roll its power equipment 24/7. This meant two people on a truck instead of one. Team driving became a necessity. And with necessity came a stroke of luck, although not all companies called it good.

About that same time, the U.S. government, also under media pressure, began to enforce the Equal Rights Law. And, voila, the great need for “second” drivers was about to be filled. Recruiters circulated adventure stories about seeing the U.S.A. from high in a semi. In fact, second drivers would get paid while they trained.

Thus was born a surge of truck driving schools, some creditable, some not, but all ready and willing to turn out a flock of trainee drivers while collecting their exorbitant fees up front. Hidden among these happenings was one lustrous pearl. Pay was by the mile, and it mattered not if a woman was behind the steering wheel. Truck driving schools knew this. Their TV ads aired on soap operas and on sporting events equally.

That was the beginning of a new era in trucking. Many more changes would follow over time, but the need for “teaming up” was immediate. That need was quickly satisfied, but equipment designed to accommodate teams took longer to produce. Thus, a raft of serious social problems arose.

Many women, eager for “equal” elevation, climbed up and into truck space no bigger than a circus lion’s cage on wheels. There, inside a semi tractor, they found a wall-to-wall bed (about 36 inches wide), a passenger’s jump seat (often without a cushion), a very big steering wheel, and a 100 percent male driver from Mars.

Paired by their new employer with a man they had never seen before, those women drivers ventured forth.

Since most teams drove across many states, carrying product from region to region, a round trip took from four to seven days. Under such circumstances, male/female differences were called “misunderstandings.” And there were enough of them to fill a rather seedy book. That’s why they will not be covered here.

In spite of the many difficulties between any two people confined to such limited space, team driving was still a must for most trucking companies. Safety requirements took precedence. A decade would pass before equipment improved and forms of female respect were established.  LL

 

 – By Ellen R. McCoy
OOIDA member, Payson, AZ

Aug/Sept Digital Edition