Sixty-three-year-old Billie Vasquez has been a trucker for more than half her life.
Billie started in the industry as a long-haul driver in 1987 and now drives P&D—that’s “pickup and delivery” for non-trucking folks—for Old Dominion Freight Line. At a stage in her career where hitting the road for long hauls are behind her, Billie said she still loves her job and wouldn’t trade it for anything.
There aren’t many like Billie. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, just 6.7% of long-haul truckers in 2019 were women.
Data suggests that women truckers are safer drivers than men. Omnitracs, a fleet management solutions company, found that women are even less likely to get warnings for dangerous driving, such as excessive speeding. With demand for shipping cranking up during the pandemic, the trucking industry is anticipating a shortage of 100,000 drivers by 2023, and many recruitment efforts are now aimed at hiring and retaining women.
San Antonio’s shared Community Vision calls for a transportation system that is safe, accessible, convenient, and reliable. With a unique perspective of transportation and what it takes to help the community run on all cylinders, we wanted to know more from Billie. We asked her a few questions about her work, her start in the business, and her commitment to always keeping other people—and herself—safe on the road.
Who or what influenced you to join the trucking profession?
My father was the one who inspired me. He was a driver for Pearl Brewery. When I was 9 years old, I’d ride with him around the block. Of course, Pearl Brewing didn’t know about it. (Laughs.) That’s when I wanted to learn how to drive the trucks. So, my father taught me the ropes on a 13-gear Mack truck. I wanted to see if I could handle something like that. It was a challenge, but I wanted to do something like my dad. Instead of following my mom’s footsteps, I followed in my father’s. To this day, I’m still not tired of it.
Did you have a moment when you thought, “Hey, I’m pretty good at this,” and if so, what was that moment?
When I went to the DPS to learn to parallel park, I parallel-parked between two cones correctly the first time. The officer testing me said, “You passed.” I was excited and couldn’t wait to get this thing on the road! I carried a lot of freight for IBM back in the 1980s—a lot of weight being 20,000 to 40,000 pounds. I have never had any problems backing a trailer into a dock.
You’ve been in the industry for 35 years. What are the biggest changes you have witnessed?
Moving from a handwritten logbook to the computers was the biggest change. On the computers, you have to log in as yourself, so there are no mistakes. You can’t move a tractor without logging on to that computer. At first, it was a learning experience for me. I thought, “How am I gonna conquer this?” I didn’t know anything about computers! Michelle (my wife) told me, “You’re going to be fine.” And I was; I learned after a week. Using the computers is safer and easier, too. You don’t have to guess about your time, which eliminates the temptation to draw it out on the road.
Also, the power steering is different now than it was in the ’80s. It’s much easier to steer them now. The truck “bings” at you when your tractor is getting too close. The only thing it doesn’t have are the cameras. We need those.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women made up 6.6% of the 3.5 million truckers in the nation as of 2018. This stat begs a very simple question: What has been your experience as a woman in trucking?
I’ve had some challenges. A lot of men don’t really like women doing what they do, especially if you do it better than them. But I’ve never been confrontational, I let things go. I’m working in a man’s world, so when I hear negative things, at least not directed at me, I let them slide off. I’ve heard the typical stuff—“women should be barefoot and pregnant.” But I don’t listen to that.
Now, my coworkers are really good with me. I knew entering this world, to stay in this industry, I was going to have to look the other way sometimes. My focus is on doing my job to the best of my ability and not worrying about what anyone else has to say.
What common misconceptions about trucking have you witnessed?
That people cut you off not knowing how much weight you carry on a trailer. A lot of people might think, “Oh, that’s a small trailer, I’ll just cut them off.” They think it’s a small load and therefore it’s okay. But we can lose control just the same on a small trailer as on a big trailer, if not worse with increased speed.
I stay back and respect people on the road, the four-wheelers, because I don’t want to have an accident and I don’t want to kill anybody.
What are some of your practices that keep you physically and mentally sharp for the job?
I sleep well. I only need six or seven hours of sleep to be alert. I never know what other vehicles are going to do, so I try to stay on the right lane most of the time. I put my blinker on for a long time and I check all my mirrors—and check them all the time. Especially because of the blind spot on our right. I keep it at 55-60 mph.
In 35 years, I’ve been involved in three accidents, none of them serious, thankfully.
What is your greatest skill that’s kept you successful for work?
I take care of my customers, I take care of my tractor, and I take care of the vehicles they assign me.
Do you listen to music while driving? If so, what is your favorite music to listen to? Favorite musician/band?
I listen to NPR most of the day. I listen to what’s going on in the news. If I do listen to music on the road, which is very rare, I love hearing soul music. I like to be informed, although at 5 a.m., when I report to work, there’s not that much on the news yet.
Okay, now for the toughest question: when you see someone on the road pump their arm (the universal gesture for, “Honk the horn”), do you honk your horn?
You’re not supposed to because you can startle people. I did it one time, back in the ’90s. This little old lady flew off the road, and it wasn’t funny. Since then, I’ve never done it again.