Survival mode
Is driver safety taking a backseat to interstate commerce?

By Clarissa Kell-Holland, staff writer

As the economy struggles, it’s becoming more and more common to hear of yet another trucker targeted in a violent crime.

In the U.S., trucks haul the majority of the freight. While you would think this would make them a valued part of the supply chain, truckers report the freight is often treated with more respect than their own safety.

As crimes against truckers increase in frequency, many shippers and receivers still refuse to allow them entry into their well-lit, fenced parking lots until their appointment times.

Those fenced lots that could be safe havens remain empty.

Instead, drivers must find refuge where they can along dark streets and in the lots of vacant businesses – becoming targets for criminals who want their loads, their cash and, sometimes, their lives.

In February, truck driver Truman L. Smith was fatally shot during an apparent robbery at the food warehouse where he was waiting to unload.

East St. Louis Police Det. Orlando Ward told Land Line that Smith told him before he died that it was a robbery.

“He (Smith) said it was a robbery and he told the guy who came up on him with the gun that he didn’t have anything,” Ward said. He then stated that the gunman was going to “shoot him anyways.”

A mere 21 cents was found in Smith’s pockets.

Protect yourself
Recently, a truck driver from Georgia was arrested in upstate New York after admitting he was carrying an unloaded 9 mm gun in his truck for protection.

Niagara County sheriff’s deputies initially stopped Lonnie Davis, 24, of Augusta, GA, after he crossed the centerline in Wheatfield, NY.

Davis told officers he had a gun he purchased from a pawnshop in Georgia, but he had failed to obtain a concealed carry permit from his home state. He told police that he bought the gun after an attempted robbery at a truck stop in Florida.

Police reported that the unloaded gun was found in his sleeper berth, but he remained in police custody as of press time.

Often, truck drivers are in a catch-22 about what they can do to legally protect themselves from those wanting to do them harm.

Many drivers say they are knowingly dispatched to high crime areas with high-value loads to receivers who have policies in place that prevent drivers from parking inside their gated lots if they arrive early. Although this makes drivers easy targets by criminals, they can’t complain for fear that it might upset a good customer and result in their termination.

They are sitting ducks without any way to protect themselves.

One OOIDA member compared his company’s attitude toward drivers to the unthinkable scenario where unarmed soldiers are sent into battle.

“They send us to places where we are treated poorly, not allowed parking, not allowed to use the rest room, not allowed to go inside to seek shelter in bad weather, but their attitude is ‘well, it’s part of the job,’ ” the driver said. “The military wouldn’t send their soldiers into a hostile environment without protection, but that’s what happens to us drivers every day.”

In July, Orlando police responded to the scene where truck driver had pulled over to rest along the South Orange Blossom Trail.

According to the police report, Larry Evans, 44, was shot in the upper right thigh in the early morning hours after he answered a knock on his truck door.

After the suspect demanded money and Evans responded that he didn’t have any, the suspect began shooting at him through the door of his red Volvo.

Evans was fortunate. He survived his injuries.

Easier said than done
Gary Slider, who maintains the comprehensive website, handgunlaw.us, told Land Line in September that drivers should have a right to protect themselves, but do not.

While there is no federal law that says that truck drivers can’t carry a properly permitted firearm, it’s still a quagmire. Differing city, county, state laws or company policies make it nearly impossible to legally comply with concealed carry laws.

“The problem is that trucking companies – a lot of trucking companies – tell their drivers it’s a federal law they can’t carry because it takes the heat off of them,” Slider said. “But if drivers are caught with a firearm, they are not breaking a federal law; they are breaking a company policy. There’s a big difference.”

He said there are four states – New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Maryland – that you want to avoid stopping in for any length of time if you have a handgun in your vehicle.

“You can stop and eat and fuel up, but you don’t want to spend the night or make a delivery in those states,” Slider said. “As long as you’re traveling through, you are fine if it’s locked up and secured in your vehicle. But if you stop and make a delivery or are stopped for the night to sleep in your truck, you’re breaking their laws and you can wind up in jail real easy.”

Slider says many criminals view truckers as easy targets because of their expensive loads and the fact that many of the drivers are unarmed.

He added that for drivers who defend themselves against those trying to do them harm, everything has to be just right “before you can press the trigger” or you will potentially face jail time.

“Three things have to happen at the exact instant you press the trigger,” Slider said. “The people or person has to have the ability to cause you death or great bodily injury. That one person can have a knife, a gun or a club – or it can be three people coming at you and they don’t have to have a club. That’s disparity of force.”

And then, Slider said, they have to be acting in such a way that a “reasonable and prudent man would believe they were going to suffer death or grave bodily injury.”

That prudent man is the jury, he said, and sometimes things can get tricky.

Each state has its own set of rules for handguns, and the same holds true for other protection devices like chemical sprays and Tasers.

“In some states you aren’t allowed to have pepper spray or Mace or any of that, and in some states you have to have a permit to carry a firearm if you want to carry a Taser,” Slider said. “That’s why it’s such a problem for truck drivers to know and follow the law because every state is different.”

‘Play ball’
Slider has maintained his website for about 16 years to help educate gun owners about the do’s and don’ts in each state. He said many truckers, who can’t legally carry handguns, don’t want to wait until someone is right in their faces before they can react to defend themselves. He said while there’s really no defense against a criminal armed with a gun, drivers have other options.

“I tell the truckers that what they need to always carry in their trucks is an aluminum bat, a ball glove, and a softball or a baseball,” he said.

“It’s hard to beat an aluminum baseball bat for a club,” Slider said. “There’s no jury in the world that’s going to convict him for carrying a weapon since he can prove he uses it to play ball when out on the road.”

Some truckers told Land Line they carry cans of starting fluid in their truck cabs or tools that they can use as a weapon if attacked.

Other drivers say they don’t get out of their trucks at night without their Maglite flashlight, a hammer or a tire thumper, and also keep them handy in their bunks.

Slider says truckers must be careful if they carry more than one form of protection because of what could happen if they choose to defend themselves by using their handgun first over a less lethal option like pepper spray or a Taser.

“A jury is going to question why you didn’t use the Mace first before shooting the person,” he said. “There are so many decisions to make in such a short time prior to pressing the trigger, but others will question your every move after the fact.”

Safe havens
OOIDA is urging its members and their families to support two Jason’s Law bills in Congress. The bills are named for Jason Rivenburg, who was fatally shot while parked in his truck cab in South Carolina in March 2009. Two Jason’s Law bills in the U.S. House – HR1803 – and Senate – S1187 – address the shortages of long-term parking for commercial vehicles along the nation’s highways.

Until secure parking for working trucks is made a priority and driver safety is appropriately valued, truckers will continue to face dangerous situations. LL