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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with John Thomas Outlaw, June 5, 1980. Interview H-0277. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Professionalization of the trucking industry

Outlaw recalls the early days of the trucking industry, when drivers were far from professional and technologies far from advanced. The industry sought to professionalize its workforce, and by mid-century, truck drivers were noted for their skill. As drivers became more professional, trucks became more technologically sophisticated.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with John Thomas Outlaw, June 5, 1980. Interview H-0277. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

ALLEN TULLOS:
And I guess then they began to hire drivers pretty early, some of them, and others more recently. What about this whole question of unionization within the trucking industry and its relationship to the Motor Carriers' Association?
JOHN THOMAS OUTLAW:
Since we do not deal with the unions at all in this association, I have very little knowledge and operating interest in it. I'd like to just talk about the driver himself. Starting back, of course the individual drove, and then he would buy a truck and get someone else to drive it. There were no regulations on safety or anything else at that time, either pertaining to the truck or the driver. So when World War II came on, there were literally thousands of drivers out there, and the Army and the federal government didn't feel that this was a profession they would give any exemptions to, so they just took all the drivers and put them out on the battlefield and left nothing but 4-F's and people of the kind that maybe you wouldn't want to work for you to drive. And they did a pretty good job of it, because the freight did move. But after the War the industry knew that it was absolutely essential that they get these men off the highways and put qualified people on. So the industry thought in terms of having a truck driver training school to help with that, and by 1949 Ed Ruggles and I—Mr. Ruggles was head of the Extension Division of the State University—decided that we'd try to get a truck driver training school in connection with the University. So we were able to, and it was the very first in the United States. But getting back on the drivers after the War, the carriers … [END OF TAPE 1, SIDE B] [TAPE 2, SIDE A] [START OF TAPE 2, SIDE A]
JOHN THOMAS OUTLAW:
… place, and the different carriers began to set up what they called safety departments, which at that time was a very mediocre-type thing. They would either get a driver or they'd get a highway patrolman or get someone to head up the department. And they'd take that particular person and try to give him as much safety training as they could. Then they would depend on that particular individual in the company called the safety supervisor to do the hiring and firing of drivers. And working in with the school at the same time, working towards improving the driving on the highway system brought about the name that later became right famous, the Knights of the Highway. And people respected the truck driver for his ability to drive and also the way that he drove as a gentleman of the highway. Emily Post even wrote a little book about the manners of a professional truck driver. So they did make a very fine name for themselves. And these safety men in North Carolina got together then and, with encouragement from the Association and me, organized the Safety Council of North Carolina. It was one of the first in the United States, and then other states began to do the same thing and improve their driving. Our program was, of course, limited. We'd moved along far enough that we decided we'd have a contest between the states to see who was really doing the best job among the state associations. They set up a trophy to be won by the most outstanding one, and so our men were doing such a fine job that we won the first trophy. In fact, we run it three or four times, and it looked like we were going to win it every time, so they changed the system, and now they award what they call the Summa Cum Laude Award, and any state that carries out the entire plan gets awarded this particular plaque. Most every part of the program in the safety field that is now nationwide started here in this state because the safety men were thinking ahead and putting different plans into effect. And usually after they were tried out, the American Trucking Association, through its national committee, would adopt them as the national plan.
ALLEN TULLOS:
Talking a little more about the drivers of the trucks, can you go back again into the twenties and thirties and say anything more about them? Would it be more common for someone who was driving for a company then to have owned a tractor, or would it have been more common for them just to have hired on for a year or two or by the job? What were those early drivers like, who did not really own their companies, but who were just …
JOHN THOMAS OUTLAW:
Driving for someone else?
ALLEN TULLOS:
Yes.
JOHN THOMAS OUTLAW:
They were just right off the street. They'd go in and say that they wanted to drive, and probably without any training or with any test of any kind they would start driving. A lot of times they would just drive within the city itself, and then later on would get outside of the city, and then on outside of the state. But the chances are that these individuals were persons that actually didn't know anything about driving. Their knowledge was completely limited as to even how the vehicle functioned. But, some way or another, they came through. And the braking system at that time was extremely inadequate. They first had the same types of brakes that the automobile had. But that wasn't strong enough and efficient enough, so they started out with a vacuum brake. And the vacuum brake worked real well when it worked, but it was never always secure. It never was a thing that they could absolutely depend on. And then after that they went to the air brake like the railroads have on the trains, and that …
ALLEN TULLOS:
Can you date those changes at all?
JOHN THOMAS OUTLAW:
I'm just not that close to it; I really am not. Now another thing that came along with safety was the maintenance. There was no such thing as preventive maintenance. Just greasing a truck, like you do an automobile, would be about… And no records kept at all. And now there's highly sophisticated information on each unit. A trucker that's really on the ball, they know the miles of the truck, and at intervals they will pull the truck in to give it an overhaul. At certain times they bring it in, of course, for greasing and so forth. But it's all done on a very systematic basis, and some of the companies even keep track of the tires. They know exactly how many miles are on each tire, so it's very complex.