By Curtis Price
Posted November 18th, 2020
The freedom of the highway and truckers, rootless and always on the move, bawdy roadhouses and neon-lit nighthawk truck stops, is an iconic American cultural meme, perhaps with highways performing as the last frontier since Frederick Jackson Turner famously pronounced the original frontier shut. Such is the myth. But the reality, as opposed to what is celebrated in song and other popular lore, is quite different. Trucking is dangerous, hard, unglamorous work, although truckers I’ve known value their freedom from office politics and backbiting at the water cooler. The fevered imaginings of automating trucking to get rid of the human element – the driver – is a managerial wet-dream. Truckers master over 23 separate skills that can’t be easily replaced by robots or autonomous driving such as Johnny-on-the-spot repairs. I knew of a 70-something driver in North Carolina who could break apart and reassemble an entire rig.
But trucking is also work that relies on the commodification of the trucker’s body. This body has to be primed for maximum efficiency, pushing itself to the limits to overcome the inevitable routine obstacles and delays. Trucker’s work life is determined by an intersection of time and distance and at this intersection is where their money is made. (1)
COVID19 has thrown a new spanner in that equation, besidse the shutdown in commercial traffic in the early days of the pandemic: increased piracy.
Industry sources report a 56% increase in incidents of theft and 80% increase in the value of goods stolen in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same time in 2019. In April 2000 alone, thefts skyrocketed 300%. But actual thefts are notoriously under-reported because trucking companies don’t want to get a bad rep for not securing their trucks. The true figures are much higher and the reported figures misleading because there are incentives for all parties concerned to keep quiet. Since industry reporting is voluntary, the federal crime figures woefully underestimate the true extent of theft and piracy on the highways..
The type of goods stolen since the onset of COVID-19 has shifted too. Before COVID19, electronics scored high, with most electronics stolen by professional gangs that then shipped the goods overseas to South America to be broken down and sold in Asian markets. But with slowdowns in international trade in the first few months of the epidemic, thieves turned to food, bottled water, and other household consumer items. These goods are easy to unload on the domestic black market and thieves with a determined hustle can peddle food stuffs to mom-and-pop stores with virtually no ability to trace such transactions. As one industry loss expert says, “You can’t put serial numbers on almonds.”
But as the economic pain from COVD19 spreads, the incentive to pirate trucker loads has only increased. As good capitalists, criminals will tailor thefts for local markets; for instance, nitrate gloves were stolen for areas with shortages and stolen bottled water gets diverted to hurricane-struck areas where drinking water fetches premium prices. In one heist, 18,000 pounds of toilet paper were spirited away for black market destinations.
Another factor boosting opportunities for theft is lay-offs or absenteeism because of COVD-19 at shipping docks, which leaves less eyes to keep track of goods and gives thieves more opportunities. Even before COVID19, truckers faced a shortage of berths at truck stops and with COVID-19, many truck stops closed or cut-back staff and hours, forcing truckers to bunk down in less secure areas, which has led to a number of violent attacks. Trucks, for instance, have been commandeered at gun point. In one case, a trucker who had pulled over for the night in a parking lot in Detroit was shot and his rig set on fire,
Many of these attempts are small-fry crimes of opportunity where attempts to steal unprotected goods devolves into violence. The big boys use more sophisticated technique such as hacking into logistics computer systems, posing as legitimate cargo shippers and even setting up phony shipping companies.
The figures for shootings and other violent acts against truckers have mushroomed since COVD-19, leading some truckers to start a “Trucker Lives Matter” Facebook group to fight for the right of truckers to carry arms. Trucking companies for insurance purposes forbid drivers to drive strapped and state laws don’t recognize gun permits held out of state so even a trucker with a permit in Oklahoma can be arrested for carrying the same weapon in Arizona. Truckers are demanding not only that companies allow them to carry arms for self-defense but also are demanding a federal law letting truckers traveling cross-state to be armed without legal repercussion.
COVID-19 is having a ripple effect throughout U.S. society and if economic hardship grows, it logically flows that attempts to appropriate necessities by any means necessary may stand to increase too. The uptick in violence and piracy in the trucking industry is just one of those hidden, unacknowledged markers of social disruption following in the wake of COVID-19. As one truckers posted on a trucker’s list said, “It’s wilder out here now than anything I’ve seen in 35 years of driving.”
1. See Benjamin H Snyder, Dignity and the Professionalized Body: Truck Driving in the Age of Instant Gratification, The Hedgehog Review, Fall 2012. Accessed from https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/work-and-dignity/articles/dignity-and-the-professionalized-body-truck-driving-in-the-age-of-instant-gratification