‘Conversations with Truckies’: new insights into life on the road

Published 18 April 2012

After two years of travelling with interstate truck drivers and recording her conversations with them, Jann Karp has a deep respect for the drivers’ professional skills and a sympathetic understanding of their dangerous and isolating occupation.

Dr Karp, a lecturer in criminology at the University of New England, has documented her experiences – and her reflections on them – in a manuscript titled Conversations with Truckies: Looking at Life Through Glass. She hopes that this work – now the subject of discussions with publishers – will dispel the popular image of the “truckie” as “an irresponsible cowboy”.

While the conversations explore the shadowy world of illegal drug use and its link to road-side prostitution, Dr Karp concludes that truck drivers are no more likely to stray into such worlds than members of other professions. “No driver I have interviewed has denied that the use of amphetamines by drivers in the industry is a serious issue,” she said. “They all felt, however, that identifying the problem as a habit shared by ‘all’ drivers was not just incorrect, but extremely harmful.”

And although there was general agreement in the industry about the serious nature of the drug problem, she said, there were “no designated prevention programs or treatment programs for interstate drivers”. There were only “voluntary programs receiving limited support from workers and family members” who were “desperate to try and fill the gap in combating serious illness and unhealthy behaviour within the industry”.

Jann Karp was an officer in the NSW Police Force for 23 years, and her first book, the well-reviewed Corruption and Crisis Control: The Nature of the Game (VDM Verlag, 2008), grew out of her professional insights – and her subsequent doctoral research – into the lives of hard-working police officers coping with dilemmas generated by an interaction of internal operational structures and external political pressures. Her newly-completed manuscript investigates the lives of interstate truck drivers with the same insightful empathy – the empathy, she says, of  “a working-class girl writing about working-class people”.

Dr Karp observed that drug use could exacerbate the reclusive behaviour of truck drivers already conditioned to a solitary lifestyle. This could take an additional toll on family relationships already under strain through prolonged absence and extensive “black spots” in telephone communication.

“Although it’s an appalling occupation for men trying to keep a family going,” she said, “our conversations revealed that they were generally doing their best under difficult circumstances. I definitely don’t regard them as victims.”

“Truckies are hard-working representatives of a highly-skilled occupation,” Dr Karp said. “Interstate drivers must drive large trucks with a sense of total control. They have learnt their trade from experience, enhancing and developing the necessary skills over years of driving. I have ridden as a passenger many times in trucks and, although I have travelled long distances, I have never felt that the driver was endangering my life.”

Drivers generally agreed that regulation was necessary, she said, but frequently told her that, because of workplace pressures, it was “difficult – if not impossible – to avoid breaking regulations in a minor sense on a regular basis”.

“There’s a gap between the policy makers and the practitioners,” she explained, “with the union acting as a go-between to try to fix the gap that’s been created.

“Every time the ignition goes on, the drivers are under three forms of scrutiny: GPS tracking, the logbook, and point-to-point camera oversight. But in spite of all that regulation they’re just a dot on a screen. There’s no two-way communication in case of accident, and I think that’s ridiculous.”

“I’m hoping that this book will give a much broader view of truck drivers’ professional skills and challenges than is currently presented in the media,” she concluded. “If it succeeds in dispelling the image of a uniform “cowboy” culture it will have served its purpose.”