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ADVENTURES ON THE JOB

Female Truckers in It for the Long Haul

Transportation: More and more women take to life behind the wheel.

June 23, 1997|SUSAN VAUGHN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Every day, along the congested highways of Shaky City (trucker slang for Los Angeles), thousands of tractor-trailers, dirt trucks, moving vans and flatbeds shoulder their cargo toward faraway destinations. Life is tough for the drivers, who often put in 60-hour workweeks, drive through the night--sometimes for 10 straight hours--and remain on the road for up to three weeks at a time.

"A lot of women believe it's too rough a life, too hard a living," says Anita Kerezman, 49, of Victorville, who drives for national carrier Yellow Freight. "But for me, it offers freedom, a chance to work outside, to view constantly changing scenery. I just couldn't imagine being cooped up in an office or laboratory."

Of the estimated 335,000 truck drivers in California, approximately 16,700 are women, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Contrary to popular myth, these distaff drivers are not Amazons who sport anchor tattoos and open Budweiser bottles with their teeth. Many have flocked to the industry to take advantage of its unusual work conditions--independence, extensive travel and out-of-doors assignments. Others have been introduced to the business by a friend, boyfriend or husband who encouraged them to try their hand at piloting a 65-foot, 80,000-pound (fully loaded), 15-gear highway schooner.

According to trucker lore, the first wave of women swept the industry in the early 1970s, when Vietnam-era youths of both sexes became enamored of the "Easy Rider" myth; they longed to be free-spirited wanderers roaming the American countryside, unhindered by ties. The women's liberation movement also inspired the day's young women to try everything that men could do. Truck driving, a vaunted male domain, became a logical target. But despite the era's ebullient liberalism, the first pioneering lady truckers were greeted with less than enthusiasm from their male peers.

"I'll tell you what the men drivers were saying," says Dennis V. Frazier, 60, of Apple Valley, a line driver for freight carrier Roadway Express who's been operating trucks for 37 years. "They were yelling, 'Get those women out of the trucks! They won't be able to do the work!' But the women proved them wrong."

Life for the early female truckers was often grueling; two decades ago, their jobs required far more heavy labor and lifting than is demanded today. Beginning female drivers would often find themselves paired on "sleeper runs" (two-person long hauls, where one person drives as the other sleeps in a small hideaway berth) with hostile male drivers. Sometimes, the male drivers would play cruel tricks; for example, they'd refuse to stop for bathroom breaks or would give the women the silent treatment during 1,000-mile runs. Others would ridicule the women to peers and employers and belittle their driving skills.

"On one of my first runs, I got really sick from some food I ate," recalls one veteran female driver who's logged more than 1 million miles. "So I asked the other driver to pull over, but he just laughed at me and refused. I had to throw up out the window as we were traveling 60 miles an hour. And when we got back [to the trucking terminal], he walked in and announced to everybody, 'Hey, look, she vomited all over the side of the truck."

Today such treatment is rare, but trucking's stringent demands have resulted in a dire shortage of trained drivers of both sexes.

Costs for insuring young commercial drivers are so prohibitive that most interstate trucking firms prefer to hire drivers at least 25 years old. This frequently causes the newly trained younger drivers, who have just graduated from trucking schools, to settle for low-paying, insecure, nonunion jobs or even accept loading-dock work until they are given an opportunity to drive.

"We basically lose the 18-to-25 age group because of this," says Tammy Boone, 37, owner of Future Trucking Professionals, a truck school in Redding. "By the time someone's 25 years old and can be hired in this industry, he or she's usually well-settled in some other field."

Beginning drivers must also pay some dues. They get the least preferred driving runs--usually irregularly scheduled long hauls that keep them away from home for days on end. They may be forced to travel nights, weekends and holidays, be paired with an unsociable driving partner, work 60-hour weeks and battle fatigue, boredom and loneliness. Starting salary is about $25,000 a year.

"It is a tough profession," says Maggie Peterson, 41, a Roadway Express driver and 20-year industry veteran. "A lot of drivers do wash out from the long hours and lack of a social life. When I first started out, I sometimes didn't see a familiar face for weeks on end. But once you've proven yourself and gotten some seniority with a good company, you can have security, a steady schedule and make a good income."

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