Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

June 30, 2014

Rather than fear, a safe trucker should respect the highway and everyone else

— When I was young, I wasn’t afraid of driving any vehicle, so when my dad asked me to ferry a big old tandem straight truck to a dealership in the Mount Washington section of Pittsburgh, I didn’t hesitate. I had taken Impalas, Biscaynes and other cars up to Baierl Chevrolet in Pittsburgh before on old Route 19, but this was a new place on me and my dad told me I had to drive through the Liberty Tubes to get there.

I was no trucker at the time. I was a measly lot boy at C. Powell Chevrolet in Washington, Pa., and I only got that job because Dad was a salesman there. Mostly, I just detailed, under-coated and switched license plates on cars, but some days I had to drive to other dealerships in the Greater Pittsburgh area to swap-out cars. It was usually a lot of fun to drive cars around, but I remember being a little anxious that summer afternoon because the truck was pretty big, had cattle racks and West Coast mirrors.

Of course, that’s the punch line here. I was nervous when I drove through the tubes and I crowded the center lines the whole way through. When I got almost out of the tubes, I clipped the passenger-side mirror on the outside archway exit and knocked it out of whack. It didn’t break, but it caused my heart to pound hard. When I got to the dealership, which was only a few blocks from the Liberty Tubes, I pulled the mirror back into place and acted like nothing had happened. The mirror wasn’t even scratched. I remember thinking that I was real lucky that day.

During the three years that I worked at Exit 2 Truck Stop, I practiced backing semi-truck and trailers away from the fuel islands and driving them around the building into parking spaces. I thought about it a lot, although I was still afraid when I left out to pick up my first load of steel. I wasn’t really ready, but I was a whole lot more prepared than I let on. As a pump jockey, I had studied the size of trucks, and knew what they were capable of doing. When I finally got to drive a tractor-trailer on the open road, I actually knew a lot more about the occupation than I should have.

At that time in the heart of the 1970s, I studied my personal limitations and always knew when to say I needed to get off the road and catch a couple hours of sleep. I never felt comfortable enough to sleep in cities like Newark, N.J., but since then, the rest of the world has caught up with Newark.

About 10 years ago, my wife and I were traveling on the outer banks of Virginia, when I wanted to stop at a convenience store and get a couple hours of sleep. We pulled into a big lot and I cut the car off. In a few minutes, two men started walking toward us, so I started the car up and drove further north to the first motel I could find with a vacancy sign lit. Paying for a motel that morning was worth its weight in peace of mind to me.

For the past few weeks, I have been thinking about the wreck on the New Jersey Turnpike that claimed the life of comedian James McNair, and seriously injured comedian Tracy Morgan. News reports of the wreck have stated that the driver of the tractor-trailer that struck the vehicle that Morgan and McNair were riding in had been up for 24 hours before the wreck. I’m not going to say that I wasn’t awake for long hours when I was driving truck, because I was. However, I always tried to time my trips so I would be awake and alert when I was in areas that were congested with too many vehicles.

If I was going into New York or Chicago, I would get a couple hours of sleep outside of the city, and try to enter big cities at about 3 or 4 a.m., after most of the drunks were off of the road and before the work-a-day Johnnies were in rush hour mode. I never drank a beer or anything harder than Pepsi when I was close to being ready to go on duty, and I slept as hard as I could for as long as I could, when I could. When I drove truck, I realized that every person had different limits. Did I absolutely follow the law in terms of what my log book required? No. Was I a safe truck driver? I think I was.

The wreck that claimed James McNair’s life and injured Tracy Morgan was higher profile than most highway wrecks, but other wrecks occur nationwide all too frequently. I can remember the first time I saw the body of a deceased motorist lying on the road as a rescue squad guy covered him with a blanket. I hadn’t been driving truck very long when I saw that, but the image was a sobering reminder that I, as a professional driver, had to be constantly alert and on watch for the unexpected.

I think all truckers leave out each week with the idea of supporting their families and getting back home safely. In an instant, things can happen that may change the lives of many families forever. I’ve always found that the time to think about that is long before I was too fatigued to push on just one more mile. I found that in a tractor-trailer, there’s always too much at stake to allow myself even a single moment to be any less than 100 percent alert. It can be tough, but it was something I thought a lot about when I was on the road.

Bill Archer is senior editor at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at barcher@bdtonline.com.

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