Petal to the Metal: The Work Lives of Truckers
© 1994 Lawrence Ouelett
I’m a little overweight, and my logbook’s way behind
Six days on the road, and I’m gonna make it home tonight.
(“Six Days on the Road”, Dave Dudley)
Whatever images spring to mind at the mention of “sociology professor”, that of a long-haired truck driver probably isn’t one of them. Yet Lawrence Ouellet was, before becoming an academic, a genuine working man – a soldier, a telephone lineman, and most notably a trucker. In Pedal to the Metal, two of his dissimilar passions meet. Drawing on his experience at three different small contractors, and referencing a range of social theorists including Thorstein Veblen, the book not only delivers a sense of what it is like to be truck driver, but explores the truckers’ motives in connection with deeper economic principles. Ouellet takes readers on a ridealong at each subject company, sharing both his and his coworkers’ experiences and thoughts about their work, detailing the job’s particularities.
The book develops toward a section on the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic awards, with Ouellet concluding that different aspects of the work appeal to different men. Those who are merely workers – men who exchange their time for money and take little pleasure in the job itself – don’t mind routine and value jobs mostly for comfortable pay. On the other end of the scale are ‘super truckers’ who are primarily attracted to the job because of mythic appeal; they enjoy playing the part of the outlaw, the rugged man who dominates a vast machine and spends his days trekking across the country, tackling mountains and evading the law. These men prefer to work at companies where destinations are highly variable, allowing for constant challenges that demand the best rigs money can buy – and who often express their pride in what they do by sinking their own money into customizing trucks further. Ouellet sees most truck drivers as being attracted to the work because of its mystique, though over time they drift toward the conventional because of the demands of family. No young father wants his glimpses of his children to be limited to once-a-month layovers. Trucking as a lifestyle defies the tendencies of capitalisim (in the author’s view) to reduce men to mere economic units.It’s a criticism shared in spirit by Wendell Berry, who scorns ‘employees’ – men with no real connection to the work beyond pay. Ouelett’s is certainly no mere prole, for near the book’s end he recounts the pains and glories of trucking with passion that makes plain his genuine love for it.
Pedal to the Metal has much to recommend it for anyone remotely interested in trucking, both as a career choice and as one of the most important elements of all economies regardless of scale. It certainly has no rival in giving readers both insight into the everyday work, coupled with a study of sociological probing into the values of the men attracted to it. Its only real disadvantage is its publication date; based on research done in the 1970s and 1980s, modern truckers work under far more technological scrutiny and regulatory restraint. Men who pride themselves on taking a load of petroleum up and down mountains without incident, who through experience gain the wisdom to choose superior routes, are now reduced to being monitored constantly, their location and speed within a search query’s tap by the home office. The men in this study who despised the notion of being company men, of allowing the boss to get the better of them, would no doubt chafe under the constant eye of conditions today -. Trucking may yet one day be the sole domain of “company men”, shuttling back and forth on preset routes, and taking little pleasure from operating under the steady LED eyes of the machine. If nothing else, Pedal will bring back to mind the days when truckers were truly cowboys of the highway.