BELLEVILLE, Ont. - Dave Nixon has had a helluva year. On a personal level, he went through a bitter separation with his wife, his business went under and his father passed away. With no family save a...
IN THE DOGHOUSE: Trucker Dave Nixon found himself hurt, angry and without a job after his former employers at Bruce R. Smith discovered he was bringing his dog Hamlet along for the ride. Smith has a strict no 'riders' policy which includes pets.Photo by Adam Ledlow
BELLEVILLE, Ont. – Dave Nixon has had a helluva year. On a personal level, he went through a bitter separation with his wife, his business went under and his father passed away. With no family save a sister in Toronto, Nixon turned to his four-legged companion, Hamlet (Ham for short), a 20-lb. Jack Russell Terrier, for comfort while driving his truck.
“Maybe it sounds silly, but I could use a friend and Ham’s a friend,” Nixon said. “He depends as much on me as I do on him. He understands loyalty like no one I have ever known.”
Ham had been riding alongside Nixon for the past three years, but the true test of their relationship was yet to come.
While working at Bruce R. Smith a few months ago, Nixon was chatting with the on-duty dispatcher via satellite messaging and the subject of Ham came up. The next morning Nixon discovered that the conversation had been monitored. Usually, this wouldn’t have been an issue, but there was one problem: Bruce R. Smith has a ‘no passengers’ rule – pets included. Within two hours, Nixon received a call from Bruce R. Smith and was confronted with questions about Ham. Unwilling to give up his companion, Nixon gave them an ultimatum.
“I said, ‘I’ve given this matter a lot of thought and what it comes down to is I won’t quit, you’re going to have to fire me’ and they said, ‘Okay.'”
Nixon found himself not only unemployed, but shocked, hurt and angry.
“I really thought that they would look at me and say, ‘This guy is a good driver and good drivers are hard to find,’ but I was wrong. To be honest, they blindsided me. I didn’t think they would be that ruthless,” lamented Nixon.
He said he felt he had proven himself as a valuable employee and hoped they might overlook this little “quirk.” He sent a letter to Bruce R. Smith’s president and CEO, John H. Smith to plead his case, but he never received a response. He also took up his case with Labour Canada, but they took side with the company.
“I don’t smoke. I don’t drink. I don’t do drugs. I’ve got more experience than most of the guys on the road. I’ve got short hair. I’ve got clean clothes. I’ve got everything going for me and they just pissed it all away like I have no value at all. And yet they will go on and on about how hard it is to get good drivers,” Nixon said.
Roger Levesque, vice-president of operations and business management at Bruce R. Smith, said the company has a very clear policy that it does not allow pets in its trucks, a policy that has been around for almost 20 years.
“From an insurance standpoint, ‘riders’ (non-employee passengers) are not insured under our policy and that could mean a lot of problems for our company if something happened,” Levesque said. “Another thing is obviously the idling; trying to keep the animal warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Again, that’s a cost to the company and given the price of fuel these days, we try to minimize our idling time as much as possible.”
Allergies are another consideration, according to Levesque, who says it’s not fair to an allergic driver who must occupy the truck after an animal has stayed in the cab.
Nixon, however, isn’t convinced. He said the “dime-a-dozen” mentality adopted by some carriers is what’s driving many qualified drivers out of the industry. Strict policies, according to Nixon, aren’t going to keep drivers behind the wheel.
“Companies just keep making more and more rules but things just keep getting worse and worse,” he added.
There are, however, some companies which are working to accommodate truckers with pets.
Larry Morgan, vice-president of E.G. Gray Transportation in Peterborough, Ont., said with respect to pets in trucks, there is no written policy which says drivers can or can’t bring pets along with them. Instead, the company addresses each case on an individual basis.
“We do have a couple of drivers that take small dogs. They’re very considerate of our equipment,” he said. “As long as they cover the passenger seats and make sure the animal isn’t urinating in the truck and there’s not hair everywhere, we tend to turn a blind eye and allow it.”
Morgan stressed the importance of not having a pro-pet policy, since the company has refused drivers in the past who were careless with their animals. In any case, when a company driver at E.G. Gray returns their truck, they are still required to clean out the truck for the next driver to eliminate any evidence of the animal.
“With our own drivers who have pets, we feel that these are their companions and if it can make their life a little more enjoyable on the road, as I say, we tend to turn a blind eye to it,” he said.
Lester Davis, manager of driver services with Winnipeg, Man.-based Bison Transport, said his company had a no-pet policy up until recently. But last year an amendment was made which now allows the driver to take the pet with them provided the pet is secured during travel and a deposit is made to ensure the truck is returned damage-free.
“We know there are many drivers out there that drive with pets and we just want to make sure it’s done in a safe manner,” he said.
When asked why they bothered changing the rule, Davis said the company realized it may have missed some opportunities to hire drivers in the past.
“(Bison had) some drivers who specifically said, ‘If you had a pet policy, I’d probably come and work for you,'” Davis said.
That said, safety is still number one with the company and all the pet’s papers must be on-board, especially for drivers running into the U.S.
Celadon in Indianapolis, Ind. has a similar pet policy to Bison. Drivers’ pets are restricted to cats and dogs and the animals’ weight is limited to 35 lbs. A one-time deposit of $300 is also required, and as long as the truck is returned in the state it was given, the deposit is returned.
However, according to Celadon CEO Steve Russell, drivers with pets are running up thousands of dollars in increased idling costs. Russell said that assuming the driver idles for an extra four hours per day (burning 1.1 gallons of fuel per hour) and assuming the price of diesel is US$2.50, either the company or O/O stands to pay out an extra $4,000 per year.
“This isn’t really a company versus driver issue; it’s whoever’s paying for the fuel. I’m not sure O/Os really realize what they’re spending,” Russell said. “The reality is that ‘poochie’ costs a lot of money.”
Nixon has heard this argument before but he shrugs it off.
“The issue of idling needed to keep the animal cool or warm is a non-issue,” he said. “The majority of fuel wasted is used to keep the driver warm or is the result of driver indifference. Any company that’s seriou- sly interested in saving fuel should install diesel fired coolant/sleeper heaters and restrict their drivers to the speed limit.”
Russell acknowledges that an in-cab heater might be a cheaper alternative than idling, but still estimates the average purchase price, burned fuel and maintenance on the unit at about US$2,700 annually.
But for Nixon, the real issue isn’t pets – it’s the driver shortage.
“If it’s going to mean the difference between getting a driver and not getting a driver, are you really going to argue about a couple of dollars to run a Webasto?”
Russell says that driver shortage aside, it’s tough for a company that’s running any more than 10 trucks not to initiate policies – whatever those policies may be.
“There is a significant driver shortage in the U.S. and in Canada, but if I were a driver, I would work for a company that had policies that I had faith in and believe to be reasonable,” Russell said.
At 60 years old Nixon is tired of being reasonable with trucking companies. He doesn’t think the person who fired him is a monster any more than he thinks landlords with no-dog policies are monsters and he acknowledges that Bruce R. Smith probably just instilled a blanket policy to avoid aggravation. But he still maintains that if the company had taken the time to look at his situat
ion, it might’ve made a compromise.
“You’ve got to stand up for what you believe in. And I don’t really understand why this monstrous organization with 1,900 pieces of equipment is down on this little 20-lb. dog,” he said.
However, Levesque says that Nixon’s argument that the pet issue should be examined on a case-by-case basis doesn’t hold much water with him. He said Nixon was constantly at odds with the company, complaining that its trucks were “pieces of crap” and making route requests that didn’t gel with the company.
“Right from the get-go we started on the wrong foot and that just kept on going,” Levesque said. “He was very hard to work with and very stubborn. There were a number of factors with him where we decided it might be best if we part ways.”
Nixon is still is search of a job, but now he has creditors on his heels. Though some might think he acted hastily with Bruce R. Smith, Nixon said he has had enough of bowing to trucking companies and their policies.
Does he have an attitude? Yes – he says he’s earned every bit of it.
“I’ve driven too many old trucks that stank of body odour and stale cigarette smoke to have any respect for the relevant companies or their rules about pets,” he said.