Nürburgring in July 2022, a Saturday afternoon on the sidelines of the Truck Grand Prix. We are in contact with professional drivers Peter Matthies, René Werner and Michael Finkbeiner, who is also a freight forwarder. They talk about their challenges – and explain why they still love their job.
MICHAEL FINKBEINER: I am a vagabond, I like to be on the road. Seeing foreign countries and people – that’s always been my thing. For me, being abroad is more enticing than being at home.
PETER MATTHIES: I like to be independent. I’m given a tour and then I drive it the way I imagine it.
RENÉ WERNER: I come from the former GDR. Getting to know foreign countries has always appealed to me. On the trestle, I’ve driven everything from the Arctic Circle to southern Italy, from Portugal to Russia.
MICHAEL FINKBEINER: There’s a long list. With corona, we were first hailed as heroes, but at the same time the prices were pushed down. And from business side of things: before Corona I had eight vehicles, now there are only two. I feel let down by politicians because they continue to put pressure on prices. The market should regulate it – but it doesn’t. That’s why I was even demonstrating in Berlin. The pandemic will eventually pass. But if there are no more of us long-distance drivers, who’s going to bring the food? Everything is still available in the shops, but soon we will have conditions like in Britain: empty stores. I think that will happen this year yet.
RENÉ WERNER: We don’t just drive, we’re also warehouse staff. For almost all customers today, we have to load and unload the vehicle ourselves, otherwise we don’t have to drive there anymore. But we are not only drivers and warehouse staff, we also schedule things and have to be very flexible. We usually have a 14- or 15-hour day.
PETER MATTHIES: I, too, would like an eight-hour working day if I could make a living from it.
MICHAEL FINKBEINER: Let me put it this way: we’re actually always the fools. We always have one foot in jail and the other in the grave. If we are on the road five minutes too long because we want to get home, we are immediately liable to prosecution. Drivers from other countries, who often spend several weeks at a time in their vehicles, which is not allowed by law, are rarely prosecuted. There are exactly 80 officials across Germany tracking this – far too few for 18,000 transports a day. Even if these officials worked around the clock, they couldn’t inspect anywhere near one percent of all transports. And they also check those who don’t drive illegally. That means they have a success rate of maybe 60 or 70 percent. This is far too low.
MICHAEL FINKBEINER: Local freight forwarders should be given more support so that this price war with foreign companies can finally be stopped. At the moment, they handle half of the transports in Germany. No action has been taken for years, and now the situation is so serious that it cannot be changed quickly.
RENÉ WERNER: Many drive with two drivers around the clock to make ends meet at all. If they were travelling strictly according to the law, there would not be a shortage of 80,000 drivers, as they say, but probably as many as 220,000.
PETER MATTHIES: After the reunification in 1990, it was said that there were enough drivers, that we no longer had to train them. However, almost all of these drivers are now gone. That’s why people have been moving further and further east, where you can buy a truck driver’s licence and start driving straight away. We are always crying out for qualification, but no one here is interested in what happens across the border.
MICHAEL FINKBEINER: As an employer, a driver from Germany costs me about 4,000 euros a month. A driver from Eastern Europe only costs 1,000 – that is not fair competition.
Road traffic law and road traffic licensing regulations must be amended. The working hours act must be amended, as must the staff promotion act. We must create uniform access to all driving licence data in Europe for the law enforcement agencies. It’s high time!
PETER MATTHIES: Road reconstruction must also be regulated differently. So far, repairs have not been made as needed, but only when the planning calls for it. It doesn’t matter whether there was already a construction there before or not. Then the road will be closed again! There are motorways that were closed three times in one year because they were being reconstructed piece by piece. Once a new layer of tar was put on it, then the hard shoulder was redone, then the middle crash barrier was renewed – and each time there was a full closure! In addition, construction times must be reduced. Construction sites are not completed before a new one is started. There is construction site after construction site after construction site – and nowhere do you see any construction vehicles. It’s no use to me if someone has five excavators but only one excavator driver, and they’re always chasing him from one construction site to another just because he absolutely wants government contracts. A motorway must be continuously repaired to completion, when it is necessary, and not in the five-year plan.
PETER MATTHIES: Policy makers should plan for at least 20 years. For example, will I still have enough drivers in 20 years? Politicians always look only to the next legislative period, at the next four years and no further.
RENÉ WERNER: Germany should also take other countries as a role model. In Belgium, years ago, I saw a construction site sign on the motorway near Antwerp that said: “give us 30 days, we’ll give you 30 years”. After 29 days they were done with the new motorway.
MICHAEL FINKBEINER: The rules have to be changed. For example, when I see how many drivers have been poorly trained: the same standards apply to everyone across the EU – but no one can tell me these standards are also being adhered to. I see what’s going on on the road, how many accidents happen. That is also a question of training. Meanwhile, the drivers who drive around with us are coming from further and further away. It’s like container shipping. I doubt that drivers from India or the Philippines have completed a three-year professional driver’s training.
RENÉ WERNER: Access to the profession must be made easier. It has to become cheaper. And the working conditions for the drivers have to be better. When I look around now at how old we all are … we are the last generation, there is almost no new blood, no trainees. Hardly anyone who can afford a driving licence. Who will do the job then? I don’t know what the politicians are counting on: self-driving trucks? Anyone who has done the job even once knows that this will not happen.
MICHAEL FINKBEINER: A truck driver’s licence costs between 8,000 to 10,000 euros. If I, as an employer, can convince someone to get a driving licence, then I usually have to pay for it. He may have the idealism, but I have the risk. What if he says after three months: “Hasta la vista, it’s been nice, but this is not my thing – this is not how I imagined it”? That’s why the conditions for the drivers have to improve. Better pay, better working hours, fewer drivers from low-wage countries on our roads. In Spain, drivers have been banned from loading and unloading. They were also excluded from the Load Securing Act. If the driver does it anyway, he has to pay a fine of 6,400 euros. The law was pushed through in three months so that they could find more drivers in Spain again. In Germany, they are still thinking about this.