America’s contributions to 20th century popular culture notably included comic books and jazz music. The long-haul truck driver may be added to that list. Over-the-road transportation is a cornerstone of the American economy and the men and women who drive the vehicles are important players in American popular culture. The depiction of the truck driver throughout the 20th century reveals an evolution in how the public has thought of the truck driver, from a modern-day cowboy to a technologically-connected employee.
The first major media depiction of truck drivers was the 1940 film They Drive by Night. Humphrey Bogart stars at Paul Fabrini, an independent truck driver who struggles to make ends. The film was a critical and commercial success, but the pop culture heyday of truck drivers was yet to come. The 1950s and 1960s saw the expansion of interstate highways, and with them the use of long-haul commercial trucks. Long-haul truck drivers were seen as a “knights of the highway,” often stopping to help stranded motorists. This befitted the economic prosperity of the times – these years witnessed a growing materialism in American culture, and trucks were the carriers of the material.
This, however, was not meant to last. American society as a whole changed dramatically as the country entered the Vietnam War. The confusion, anxiety, and frustration experienced by many Americans was translated into films like White Line Fever and Smokey and the Bandit. The joyful overtones of both films belied a deeper trouble – truck drivers, according to the screen, were reckless and acted without constraint. The films of the following decades took a darker turn, depicting truck drivers as dangerous loners. The “knights of the highway” days were long gone.
In the 2000s, the Internet emerged as one of the business world’s greatest tools. The expansion of Internet-connected devices affected every pocket of American commerce – truck drivers included. Drivers have adjusted to this change in the tide in a variety of ways, most notably the use of a tablet computer as part of their company’s fleet management system. The Internet has brought with it a proliferation of different viewpoints as well. This has changed the stereotypical physical image of a truck driver that held steady through the preceding decades. Today, it is understood that both men and women can be truck drivers, that many truck drivers have college degrees and that many pursue driving as a serious career. With these new technologically advanced fleets leading the way, truck driving is poised to remain at the center of both American commerce and the popular eye.