Trucking in the U.S.A.: Where the Accent Is Russian

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There have been licensing scams. Many states do not administer CDL exams, instead outsourcing them to private companies. Some tests have been seriously compromised. In St. Louis in 2008, for example, Mustafa Redzic, owner of the Bosnia Truck Driving School, was convicted of bribery, conspiracy and fraud and sentenced to 75 months in prison, followed by three years of supervised release. Prosecutors charged that Redzic's students were given short CDL tests or no tests at all after Redzic bribed the manager of a testing facility, resulting in at least 469 ill-gotten CDLs. The manager of the testing facility received a sentence of a year and a day in jail. Missouri has since halted third-party testing, handing the process over to the Highway Patrol.

A 2010 legislative audit of Utah's driver's-license division found incidences of fraud and minimal oversight of the state's 300 CDL testers and alleged that some immigrant applicants were found using electronic translation devices to take the test. It declared, "There is a great risk that those drivers do not properly know how to drive a commercial vehicle. This poses a risk to everyone." Nicolay Karpov scoffs at the idea of any kind of interpreting help during CDL exams. "The interpreter will not be with you on the road, helping you drive after the test."

In late August, federal prosecutors in Pennsylvania indicted nine people for allegedly running a scheme to sell state CDLs to ill-prepared drivers. Vitaliy and Tatyana Kroshnev allegedly billed hundreds of students coming from 26 states — many of whom were Russian speakers — up to $2,200 each at their International Training Academy to successfully pass their CDL tests, and according to the FBI, they are accused of enlisting "foreign-language interpreters who gave applicants the answers to the written commercial driver's license permit test." "It places the entire public at risk if persons receiving fraudulent CDLs are driving large vehicles," says Michele Morgan-Kelly, assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. "You have the biggest things on the road that can do a lot of damage, and safety standards are being violated."

The kind of damage that can be done was demonstrated in December 2008 on I-90, 400 miles west of Billings, when a semi out of New Jersey pulling two trailers, traveling at a high rate of speed, jackknifed on the icy highway and slammed into a local emergency vehicle, killing fireman Jerry J. Parrick, 51. After a long investigation, the driver of the semi, Sergey Buslayev, 56, was extradited from New Jersey to Montana in late July to face charges of second-degree homicide and criminal endangerment. At the initial arraignment hearing, the judge discontinued proceedings until the court could find an interpreter. "Sometimes I understand good and sometimes not," Buslayev told the judge. Last week, Buslayev pleaded not guilty to both charges and remains in custody, unable to post bond.

It's enough to make you wonder why immigrants want to be long-haul drivers in the first place. The conventional wisdom is that truckers make a dollar per mile they drive (a 10-hour nonstop workday being worth $600 or more), but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median wage for truckers in 2009 was just $37,730 — much less than the median U.S. family income of about $45,000. Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which has 154,000 members, believes that many foreign-born drivers are exploited by the industry. "People in trucking are kind of predatory in terms of capitalism. These drivers are being exploited because of loopholes in the regulations and lack of enforcement." He adds, "The attractiveness of these folks is simply cheap labor. There are 500,000 CDLs issued every year. But many new drivers go right out of the business. The dollars, the hours — they don't compute."

Some Russians get into the business out of desperation. ASMAP's Kamchatova says the truckers who remain in her country "are just barely breaking even. They have just enough to pay for fuel and basic necessities, bread and shelter. So a lot of them are going abroad. Here in Russia, there's just nothing left for many of them." But, says Nicolay Karpov, "for most of the guys who immigrated here, this is the best way to make enough money to take care of their families. If they come here, and they have no diploma, can't speak English and are over 35, trucking is the easiest way to make some good money." He insists, however, that getting a grasp on English is a must. "If you can't read and understand basic English," he says, "you should not be driving a commercial vehicle on the road 24/7. It would be bad for everyone."

In America, the trucker's life is not an easy one. Karpov says his drivers usually spend two weeks on the road and two weeks at home so "they have some time with family." And he adds, "You don't make all the money in the world." But compared with Russia, America is a dream, even if his drivers face sporadic discrimination or hostility from state inspectors at weigh stations. "Sometimes," he says, "the inspectors laugh at us like we're stupid or something. [Our drivers] do sometimes feel they are discriminated against because they talk with the accents." But he says that for the most part, the inspectors simply do their job. "For me," he continues, "this is the nicest country. I saw more discrimination against foreigners in Russia than I do here."

— With reporting by Simon Shuster / Moscow

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