Line One
Downshift
Till the new wears off

Bill Hudgins
Columnist

If ragging about newbie drivers gets your pulse going like a shot of ether in Duluth in December, you must be revving hard these days. With an annual shortage of some 80,000 truckers and companies turning away freight for lack of drivers, look for lots more new faces, and soon.

How many? Documents filed by the ATA in late August as part of the hours-of-service wrangle give some idea of how many rookies have come on board since Jan. 4, when the new rules went into effect:

  • Werner: 4,000 (out of around 10,000 total);
  • J.B. Hunt: 1,300 (out of 12,000);
  • Schneider: 3,250 (out of 12,500 company drivers and 2,600 O/Os).

An ATA survey of its top 100 members and its board of directors found they had added at least 14,584 drivers. So many have never driven under the old rules that the ATA warns it would cost millions to retrain them, not to mention dispatchers and safety people — even the veterans and the enforcement officers. Chaos would reign.

But to hear vets describe it, chaos reigns already. My CB regularly smokes from some of the lessons transmitted to “wheel-holders” who don’t signal or flash brights to acknowledge a lane change (or don’t help at all). More serious are the ones who ignore speed and lane restrictions in construction zones, who tailgate constantly, who ask in hurt tones at 5 p.m. Friday in Atlanta: “Hey, what’s the hold up for?”

You’d think that the long-time guys and gals were born knowing the FMCSRs by heart. Of course, if you honestly think back to your first months on the road, you might start squirming in your Easy Rider seat.

How about the first time the boss hooked a thumb over his shoulder at a loaded rig and said, “Take ’er to Chicago!” or Shakytown or even the Big Apple? If you were lucky enough to have apprenticed under a relative or friend, maybe you looked him in the eye and said, “Yessir, see ya Monday.”

But were you so good that a crusty road warrior in an immaculate B-model Mack never lectured you on concrete courtesy or how to hold it between the lines in an ice storm?

More than a few faked their way into a job with little or no experience. Caught up in wanderlust or needing a paycheck or maybe both, they figured, heck if he can drive a truck, I can, too. Then they convinced some small-fleet owner that they’d been jockeying a twin-stick tranny since kindergarten.

Didn’t your palms sweat right through your work gloves when you sat in that seat and wondered, what are all these switches and dials? I know you did, because darn near everyone who took that route recalls someone taking them under their wing and teaching them enough to survive.

When I first started thinking about this column, I came up with a “Rookie Disguise Kit” to help new recruits pass for seasoned truckers. It would have things like: Pre-stained and “distressed” caps, boots, jeans and work gloves. A pocket T-shirt with a pocket pre-creased for either a cigarette pack or a can of dip. A small tube of stage makeup to simulate years of accumulated grime under fingernails and in wrinkles. And last but not least, a set of double-secret road rules, such as: Call a U.S. marshal if the DOT is trying to put you out of service. (For any rookies reading this: DO NOT call the marshals; this is an old highway legend.)

But the more I thought about the Rookie Disguise Kit, the crueler it seemed. There’s general agreement that better pay and more decent treatment can help bring badly needed new blood into trucking, but the flip side of that is making sure all these rookies don’t endanger themselves and the rest of us.

The answer may be in your mirror.

No question that some people don’t belong behind the wheel, but hazing everyone who’s new won’t make it better. In fact, it may make it worse —companies will be forced to take anyone with a semi-regular pulse, and we’ll all suffer for it. It’s time to pay forward the good advice you got from your mentor.

We all stand on the shoulders of giants. For trucking’s Generation Next, it’s time for you to rise to the challenge.

Bill Hudgins may be reached at billhudgins@earthlink.net

March/April
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