“Lookout!” yelled Darwin Rhodes from the passenger seat. Our rig raced down the road. He lunged at the steering wheel, like an outfielder catching a fly ball over the fence. An abrupt jolt of the wheel yanked the Kenworth truck back to the middle lane. We missed a collision with a twenty-something woman in a compact car.
“That was close!” I exclaimed to Rhodes, a boyish George Jones look-alike and multi-million mile driver. Rhodes owns Rhodes Trucking in picturesque Penn Laird, Virginia.
A second earlier, a flip of the turn signal and check of the mirrors revealed no cars in the left lane. Surely nobody would zip around us as we merged left. But there she was. Equally confusing is the forward view from the driver’s seat. There’s a dizzying horizon of buttons, switches and lights – enough to even send an airline pilot spinning to oblivion.
Most aspiring truckers would thankfully descend from the cab, like ice cream dripping down a cone on a hot summer day – and slink back to the chaos, conflict and confusion of commuting in cars and congestion. Only to say the next morning “why am I the only person who knows how to drive?”
WHY DRIVE TRUCKS?
But cowardice in the face of challenge goes against my core. And I am a child of the seventies. Songs like BTO’s “Roll on Down the Highway,” CW McCall’s “Convoy” and Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down” ruled the airwaves. It is easy to romanticize life on the road and frontiers to be discovered.
Driving big rigs offers: the lure of adventure; seeing new places and faces; the crackle of characters on the citizen’s band radio; having an office with a view (even if the view is of a smelly chemical plant in New Jersey); the prestige of possessing the highest driver qualification attainable; the trucker’s jargon and camaraderie amongst fellow “Kings of the Road.”
Also, I love trucks. The diesel beats out a soothing, rhythmic pulse. She helps me meditate about what is and what should be, as an endless stream of highway signs, exit ramps and panoramic views blur by.
TRAINING FOR TRUCKING
With the anticipation of early explorers bobbing in the ocean awaiting the new world, I found myself at Smith and Solomon, a Professional Truck Driver Institute member academy in New Castle, Delaware. According to Jim Bennett, Regional Director of Operations, Smith and Solomon trains 2,500 students annually at their twelve locations in mid and north Atlantic states. Major carriers woo and serenade graduates of PTDI approved schools.
“PTDI schools provide great base training and excellent general knowledge” says Rick Etinger, mid northeast regional manager for Werner Enterprises, employing twelve thousand drivers in North America. Etinger’s hour long recruiting presentation to Smith and Solomon students aims to solve driver shortages with promises of more pay through the best technology. Werner’s oldest truck is two and a half years old, says Etinger. “With our satellite communication, we keep the wheels rolling so you make more money.” Werner team drivers can log as many as 24,000 miles (that's four round trips to California from the east coast) each month.
Before we even sat in a big rig, classroom studies filled our first week. We studied: pre-trip inspections; driving technique; regulations; accident prevention and vehicle weight and balance. Unbelievably, it take twenty-nine chapters to cover all of the subjects. Then there are Federal Regulations that affect truckers. Regulations read like an insurance policy: six hundred forty pages of fine print. But when one is in charge of a seventy-five foot long vehicle, it only makes sense that there are some rules of operation, no matter how arduous.
Sensing discouragement amongst the students with a difficult driving exercise, instructor Frank Marino of Philadelphia quips: "There are no idiots, just new drivers. Nobody was born behind the wheel of a truck. Maybe conceived there, but not born there." The class chuckles and the mood lightens.
A fellow student saw me contemplating the course work. “Just do the class work. It’s easy after that!” he cheered enthusiastically, as he floated by on a cushion of air. Buoyed by preparation and encouragement from instructors, he’s off with General Manager and instructor Bill Applegate, 47, for a road test at the Department of Motor Vehicles. "Seventy five percent of Smith and Solomon students pass their driving test on the first try," says Bennett.
IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT
Gripping the steering wheel, my stomach churns in anticipation. Instructor Jim Larson, 59, tells me to drive forward between cones in the training lot, then back the tractor-trailer up. Through expert coaching and encouragement, Jim’s ten years of over-the-road experience pay off. Next we try the more challenging parallel and forty-five degree parking. Students hit cones like crazy. By breaking each step down, then stopping and setting up for the next step, we start to resemble the pros soaring gracefully around shopping center loading docks every day.
There's more to driving a tractor-trailer than rolling in a rig down the highway:"When the gear doesn't engage, let the clutch out a little until it starts to engage, then push the clutch back in," Larson offers. Gear shifting technique is an entire course section. "When backing up, steer toward the trailer (as seen in the mirror) if it gets out of line."
When we practiced turning, backing up or driving, Marino barks in his thick Philly accent over the growl of the turbo-charged diesel: "The trailer is your money maker. The truck is just something to hold onto when you drive. Watch your trailer!" Marino goes onto advise the students how to prevent theft from or of the trailer with tales about contents being stolen from truck stops or while in New York City traffic. Students are impressed with the responsibility of their duty transporting freight.
Automobile brakes are inspected on the state-mandated annual inspection, or maybe just when the vehicle is titled. Conversely, a truck's brakes are inspected before every trip. Brake lines, the compressor, slack adjusters, the low pressure warning system and the air governor cut-out are all tested by the driver. Being able to test (and demonstrate for state police weight-station and road side inspections) are just a small part of a driver's routine duties.
There are strict federal regulations governing how many hours of service and driving a driver may perform before mandatory breaks. The driver gets paid for the miles he drives, not his breaks.
Learning about the operation of a big rig enabled me to better appreciate the skill, sacrifice and dedication of tractor-trailer drivers. Without interstate truckers, our country would grind to a halt. To understand, inspect and safely operate an 80,000 pound combination vehicle greatly bolstered my confidence as a motor vehicle operator.
Should a siren's song from some scenic highway strike, call a PTDI member school to learn more. See you on the road, good buddy!
Bruce Andrew Peters is an internationally published, award-winning photojournalist. His work frequently appears in the American Trucking Associations' Transport Topics Magazine. visit:http://www.GreatWriteUp.com