Story at a glance

  • Despite high demand for certain items, the trucking industry has seen an overall decline in orders due to the pandemic.
  • “The trucking industry — like the rest of the economy — has never seen such an abrupt deterioration,” one expert says.
  • Some states have checkpoints that are screening drivers for coronavirus.

It’s been quite a ride recently for the nation’s truck drivers, who’ve been diligently delivering to meet the immense coronavirus-driven demand for supplies; but now the transportation industry reports seeing a slow down due to massive numbers of businesses shuttering, including the recent COVID-19-related closings of several major meat processing plants.

“For much of the industry, the best way to describe the crisis is whiplash,” says Avery Vise, Vice President, Trucking for FTR Transportation Intelligence, which provides forecasting and market analysis for transportation professionals.

It's estimated about 71 percent of America's freight is moved on trucks.

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“At first, many trucking companies saw a huge increase in freight as grocery stores needed to restock food and other staples depleted by panic buying. In just a couple of weeks, however, that demand evaporated or at least was overwhelmed by the loss of freight due to the economic shutdown,” says Vise.

The economic shutdown now has taken a toll on the whole industry, he says. “The trucking industry — like the rest of the economy — has never seen such an abrupt deterioration. Grocery demand might still be higher than normal, but all other areas of freight are now sharply lower. The increase in online purchasing certainly does not come close to offsetting the loss of brick-and-mortar purchasing,” explains Vise.

"While an economic restart likely will begin in May, the damage wrought during this period will weaken the trucking industry for months to come."

Since the pandemic started, Ruben Foster, of Henrico, Va., who trains truck drivers for the Richmond-based trucking company Abilene Motor Express, has been driving across the country nearly nonstop. "We have been going and going," says Foster, whose recent travels have taken him from Virginia all the way to L.A. and back two times as well as north to Ohio and south to Miami.

"I'm always hoping to stay busy, but economy dictates demand," he says. "If I don't work, I don't get paid."

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Foster's work trips during the coronavirus crisis are different than before the pandemic. The other day, near the Florida and Georgia border on I-95, he saw the new checkpoints set up to filter people coming into Florida from coronavirus hot spots. Weigh stations are usually used to check if big trucks are complying with weight safety guidelines.

But now, some of these weigh stations are being designated as areas to check all drivers — except semi-trucks — who may be coming in from places like New York, which have been hit hard by the pandemic. Drivers are questioned, and if flagged, are mandated to self-quarantine.

Foster also observes that the interstates across the U.S. have less traffic due to stay-at-home orders. "The highways have been unusually empty," he notes. Although the open roads make it safer and easier to get to his destination in a more timely manner, Foster says, "But I’d rather be fighting traffic knowing people are going to work, than open highways knowing people are not working or home sick." 

Driving through Albuquerque, NM, last week, Foster saw a person with a sign on an overpass that read, "Thank you, Truckers!" He smiled and blew his horn in gratitude, but says, "I don’t think I'm a hero doing this job. The real heroes are the doctors and nurses saving people. I’m just a guy driving a truck, trying to work and feed my family. I’m blessed to be able to work."

Right before the unexpected pandemic happened, Elliott Hawthorne of Petersburg, Va., had just started a new career as a professional truck driver with Abilene Motor Express. Trained by Foster, Hawthorne was able to immediately use his new skills during an unprecedented busy time for the transportation industry to meet demand surges related to the coronavirus. “This job allows me to make sure people get what they need. That's exciting," says Hawthorne. "To be part of something that’s helping people, I’m glad to be a part of it,” he says.

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Hawthorne also expresses his gratitude "to be able to earn an honest day's living. I don't take it for granted," he says.

Optimistically hoping for the best ahead for the nation, Hawthorne says one of the best parts about his new job is traveling through different states he's never been to before. "I've seen beautiful scenery, the mountains, and how people live in different parts of the country. I appreciate it all," he says.


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Published on Apr 24, 2020