Gurjeet Kaur Randhwa drove a truck from Central Valley, California, carrying fresh produce to dinner tables across fifty states of the United States of America. A former national level field-hockey player in India, she now deftly navigates the American highways ensuring she stays in good health.In order to maintain her truck-driver’s license, Gurjeet must ensure her blood pressure and diabetes is within the acceptable range.
Gurjeet’s medical exam report is part of her driving record. It is filed electronically by the Medical Examiner (ME) with the US Department of Transportation (DOT) bi-annually. Any drop in health indices would mean she loses her license or at best, gets recertified every year.
The looming threat of annual medical exams that can choke off their livelihood, puts pressure on truck drivers to manage the perils of their sedentary lifestyle that result from long hours of driving. Long haul truck drivers in the U.S. have an increased prevalence, over the larger population, of major health risks and conditions across the board—obesity, morbid obesity, self-reported diabetes, cardiovascular risk factors, smoking, and lack of health insurance.
There are 1.7 million men and women working as long-haul drivers in the US according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) survey2017).
Eighteen percent, approximately 30,000 of them, are estimated to be Punjabi says Raman Dhillon, founder The North American Punjabi Trucking Association (NAPTA). The number of Punjabi truck drivers fluctuates based on the availability of jobs. Satnam Singh, a truck driver out of Yuba City says about half of the Punjabi drivers, approximately 20,000 live in California.
This Series will look at (the health challenges Punjabi drivers are facing in order to keep their driving licenses, and how they are navigating this during COVID. The two articles that follow will look at the nutritional value of dhabas (Punjabi truck stops) dotted along the US highways frequented by Punjabi truckers, and how these drivers increasingly use telemedicine to stay relatively healthy on the road and meet their licensing requirements.
Fuel For The Body
Gurjeet, a gold medalist in Masters in Physical Education, was a Professor at Women’s College, Amritsar before she moved to the United States. Her training in nutrition came in handy as she planned for her life on the road. She is vegetarian when on the road and thinks that most Punjabi truck drivers too are largely vegetarian whilst driving.
“Since it is not considered auspicious to eat meat, I have observed that most truck-drivers do not eat meat when on a long road.”
“When you are driving a 80,000-ton vehicle, which takes an entire football field length to come to a full stop, you really are riding a rocket. It is a powerful machine and any small mistake can have magnified consequences. Driving long hours, as we do, one definitely wants the blessings of the Guru with us,” says Gurjeet. Gurjeet has never seen Punjabi Sikh drivers transport cattle to beef factories for that very reason.
Satnam Singh, a truck driver who lives in Yuba City and is an active member of the community, agrees with her that most are vegetarian while driving. “Not all of them. I would guess 80%” he said.
Unfortunately, being vegetarian further limits their food-stop choices on the road so drivers pack nutritious meals before leaving home. Gurjeet, when she drives her truck, carries two subzis or vegetable curries per meal. She wraps the chapatis or flatbreads individually in airtight packs to keep them fresh longer. Every truck has a small rest area behind the driver’s seat. It holds a mini-refrigerator, a microwave, and a bed to lay on. On a ten to fifteen-day road journey, there always comes a time when the driver exhausts their stash of food and has to stop and buy a meal. This is where the driver must make informed choices.
To meet the needs of the truckers, dhabas or food stops serving Punjabi food have sprung up along US highways. In the remotest of places, sometimes hidden inside gas stations are mouth-watering, wholesome delicacies that promise to keep the glycemic index from jumping up.
Gurjeet and her husband used to drive together, taking turns. As drivers are paid by the mile, this enabled the couple to make a quick turnaround and complete more trips every month. A truck can make only three trips a month barely breaking even. By sharing the driving amongst them the couple would squeeze on a fourth trip. But life on the road was tough. Sleeping in a moving truck was hardly restful. Driving long hours tired Gurjeet out. Lack of good sleep is definitely a factor impacting the health of the truck driver.
Balvinder Singh, a truck driver who now runs a dhaba, agrees. “I could not get fitful sleep on these journeys. When the load needs to be dropped off and another one picked, the driver is at the mercy of the client. Whenever the load becomes available he must pick it up. In a rush to minimize the number of hours spent in wait mode the driver sometimes snatches just 3-4 hours of sleep before he starts loading,” says Balvinder.
The number of hours on the road is strongly regulated by the Department of Transportation. After being off duty for 10 or more consecutive hours, a trucker is allowed to drive for up to 11 hours in a period of 14 consecutive hours. The truck‘s Electronic Logging Device or ELD system makes a note of the number of hours the driver has rested and the number of hours he has been on the road. The driver must receive a minimum of 10 hours off duty if transporting property, and eight hours if transporting passengers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, a nationwide emergency hours-of-service exemption was in place for truck drivers hauling loads related to the coronavirus pandemic. The relaxed rules allow some truck drivers to rest for less than 10 hours.
The Center of Disease Control (CDC) states that adults who sleep less than 7 hours each night are more likely to say they have had health problems, including heart attack, asthma, and depression. Some of these health problems raise the risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Get The Heart Pumping
Most truck stops have facilities for the truckers to shower, shave, eat and exercise. Some have a lounge to relax in and a gas station to fuel up. Gurjeet and the other Punjabi truck drivers rarely use the gyms. “I have never seen any desi drivers in the gyms,” says Balvinder.
After being cooped up in the truck for long hours Gurjeet would rather be in the fresh air. She advocates a walk at every stop making sure to cover a few miles. As a lady driver, security is a concern. She does not wander too far from the truck but circles her 53-foot long truck, carving out her own track.
Health of Wealth
The romance of being a truck driver has been captured by many movies and folk singers. The shiny machine humming down the long road of freedom making stops as it travels through new lands and vistas is a vision that fueled the American dream of this professor of nutrition, field hockey player, and yogini. With the drop in loads due to the trade war with China in 2019 and COVID-19 in 2020, the American Dream seems to be souring as truckers fight for loads.
The drop in container traffic has led truck drivers who served the ports to move into stable but low paying Central Valley produce transportation businesses. Price gouging by middlemen brokers has made it difficult for truckers to meet their expenses let alone make it profitable for them to drive their trucks. Since the beginning of May 2020, commercial drivers have taken to the streets of Washington DC and Sacramento petitioning Congress to take immediate action to improve broker transparency. A majority of the Punjabi truckers are independent operators who get their business through brokers. A shipper pays the broker, who in turn pays the truck driver for carrying the load. Brokers are taking advantage of the desperation of the independent truckers in COVID times by creaming off the rates. Motor carriers have the right to know how much a shipper is paying a broker and how much the broker is then paying the motor carrier. Brokers often find ways of circumventing federal regulations (49 CFR §371.3) that require them to keep records of transactions and make them available to carriers upon request.
It is time to remember that behind the wheel of the machine is a person who delivers our essential goods, keeps panic of empty grocery store shelves at bay, and drives at great peril to their health, fighting to stay healthy to keep their jobs.
Truck driver Satnam Singh of Yuba City said in Punjabi, “Every day we ride a bomb. We are caught in a triple whammy of less work, low rates, and poor health.”
Read other articles in this series:
Ritu Marwah wrote this series while participating in the USC Center for Health Journalism‘s California Fellowship.