Sunday, January 25, 2009

Knights of the Road

Truckers used to be Knights of the Road. If your car broke down on the side of the road, chances are a trucker would stop and help you out. They were a polite bunch - flashing headlights when a pass was clear, blinking taillights to say "thank you," flashing headlights or the sideways "peace sign" when a "bear" was in the area, honking the air horns for little kids, and so on. I started my career in those days. The current crop of machinery herders frankly disgust me. In my book, they are not truckers. They are just a machine operator moving the load down the road. While there are a lot of old school drivers out there, we are a dying breed.


Well, I have my suspicions. Anecdotal evidence and "feelings" as to the various causes. So, the .gov hasn't funded a study to pay me for this opinion, so as they say, Your Mileage May Vary.

First is the training and requirements for drivers. Turnover is pretty high at some companies, so the bottom line is they need a body behind the wheel that gets a load down the road without costing them much money. The image of the professional is really given lip service and not much else. Lots of trailers have toll free numbers so you can call and complain - but rarely does this result in any sort of disciplinary action on the part of the hiring company. Drivers are cranked out on an assembly line - they are trained how to back into a marked spot on open pavement, the essentials of the pre and post trip inspections, techniques designed to allow the student to pass the driving test, and the resident safety guru's requirements. For instance, when we "drop" a trailer, if the landing gear is in good shape, you can twirl the crank with a couple fingers to speed up the process. Swift will fire a driver who does that - if you aren't careful, you can hit your face with the crank while it's rapidly turning. It's a safety hazard.

The training must meet certain standards, and most schools seem to cover the basics. Driver professionalism? Not really. They might cover some things, but it becomes clear to a fresh driver that manners are pretty much optional. My "training" was on the job. I was placed with an experienced driver and he taught me his philosophy and "showed me the ropes." Of course, for a major company, this sort of undocumented unsanctioned experience doesn't count at all. The years of driving since then do, however. Most drivers I know were "trained" in a similar manner. We were taught not to intimidate the four wheelers, pass only when it's a sure thing, and all the other little things that make the driving public feel comfortable around us.

I got into an argument at the Petro2 in Salina one day with a couple of large company drivers. We were all in line at the Wendy's, and a driver and I struck up a conversation. He was in his uniform (as was I), and he was bitching about how his truck had just been turned down again. This was at the start of the fuel price bubble. I allowed that most of our trucks are limited - but to eighty mph. His was down to sixty three. Another driver behind us joined in. He also worked for one of the big name companies, and his truck was limited similarly.

I was commiserating with them about their pain. I would find it hard to work for a company that would do that to me rather than trust me to take care of their equipment and try to get mileage balanced with gettin' er done on time. I kind of started it when I asked why so many of "you" guys pull out to pass someone just a tick slower and cut me off? When you could clearly see I'm coming at a far greater speed? How is that safe and courteous?

That pissed both of them off. "Everyone does it to me." Oh really? I don't. "Well, I get tired of getting passed all day." And you are making this my problem why? Yeah, your professionalism is really shining through here. So, being resentful and jealous fuels many of their actions. They just don't care if what they do pisses you, me or anyone else off. They're not gonna get fired if you call their dispatcher. They've abandoned any sort of "driver morals" a long time ago.

I've liked this line from The Shawshank Redemption - James Whitmore as Brooks Hatlen: The world went and got itself in a big damn hurry. Society has changed in the last twenty years. The motoring public has changed. I don't stop for vehicles in trouble unless I see they are elderly. For one thing, cell phones have made it largely unnecessary for anyone to stop - chances are someone is on the way. Plus, this ain't my Grandpa's world - there are animals out there who plan to hand out harm, and this is one of the ways to do it. A hitchhiker on I70 gave me the evil eye the other day because I didn't stop and pick him up. First of all, my company says no to hitchhikers. Secondly, I have no room. My passenger seat has a denim cover with pockets full of various paperwork, the floorboards are covered with a cooler, my travel bag and laptop, an extra heavy coat, and various other deitrus. Thirdly, I don't owe a hitchhiker a ride, period. I don't trust 'em. Sorry. I don't travel if I cannot afford to go, and I'm not gonna depend on the kindness of others (beg) to get to where I want.

Society has changed in other ways, too. I can remember as a child, riding with my father. We might be stuck behind a truck coming out of town, waiting for the trucker to build speed. "Why don't you pass him, Daddy?" I asked. "Because, son, he'll have that thing wound up in a little bit and he'll walk off and leave us behind." Sure enough - the truck was traveling faster than us. Now tell me that the average person has that kind of patience these days. With our wide loads, one of the safest places to be on a big city interstate is the fast lane. We can hug the jersey barriers and stay out of the other lanes - where if we have to be in the right lanes the load hangs over both sides. I've been flipped off more times than I care to remember, and nearly collected several cars that made that extra special effort to cut me off as well as let me know I was number one. These idiots try to intimidate me, and they do, because I know the law of physics is on my side. I really don't want to kill some road rage asshole who ignores the mass times velocity equation. Many cities have banned trucks from using the fast lane in certain areas. Does it help traffic flow? I dunno, but it puts us out in the mainstream where we don't always have the ability to see the traffic. Y'all be the judge - would you rather I be able to guard my left side and concentrate on my right, or take the chance I won't see you when I'm in the middle or right lane?

So, it's really not important to society that the goods are delivered with a friendly flair - it's all about the bottom line. Traditional driver manners aren't regulated by the .gov, so they aren't required. Trust is a two way transaction, and both sides have eroded their credibility.

But, I'll continue to flash my headlights to trucks that pass me - I get passed quite a bit, and that doesn't bother me. I'll not cut someone driving faster than I just to get around someone slower. I'll honk for little kids that give me the "pull the horn" sign. I won't try to intimidate someone in a car by following too close, or squeeze into a lane to move someone over that upset me, or whatever. If someone tries to provoke me, I'll sure do my best to be above escalating that situation. It's all part of my job satisfaction - I do it old school, and am proud of it.


Earl said...

You will have to watch out, the speeding America (on its way to the junk heap of stupidity) will be leaving you and your good sense and manners behind. Don't worry though, there are some of us that will be there with you, it is the journey not the waiting at the next stop that makes a good trip.

Frank W. James said...

I grew up on a major state east-west highway, plus I farm right next to a major truck stop on I-65 and everything you write rings true. The 'drivers' today are NOT professional. They are job TAKERS and, in my view, extremely selfish. They will pull out in front of you every damn time at the interchange and dare you to hit them in a collision.

I not defending the 'four wheelers' either because it seems to me we, as a superhighway nation, have lost all sense of common courtesy and that very important commodity..."patience".

All The Best,
Frank W. James

Anonymous said...

When I traveled through Virginia and down through Tennessee, I noticed a better give and take/working with the truck drivers. It was like I was looking out for there safety and they were looking out for mine. In NJ where everything is pretty flat, it can get scary. I often see trucks going back and forth with each other. The Mack trucks that carry debris, rock, and sand are the worst, because they really do get a head of steam and it can be near to impossible sometimes to get over to let them by.

I try to be courteous. I hate when I am in the right lane, have nowhere to go, but a merging truck tries to squeeze me into the middle lane...where there is no room. I realize he's working on getting up to speed and to slow down would be a pain, but I do have the right of way and if I can't get over, is it really worth turning me into the bug on his grill?

That doesn't seem as bad as it was a few years ago, but it might be because more trucks might be taking the turnpike.

Anonymous said...

My friend I too agree. I have been only driving for 5 years, mostly taught by my father. He was another old schooler, running grain hopper-bottoms in ND. Got my first run at age 2 WEEKS, diesel fumes got my blood and lived for the day I could drive.
I have notice the few times I have run Phx - Atl, the older drivers were the best to run with. young buck my age were mostly jerks and speed jocks.
I love your site, don't get be here much but love it when I do.
Keep the shiny side up and stay tween the stripes.