BELLEVILLE, Ont. – On a mild mid-April day, owner/operator Mike Dingler is shooting the breeze with fellow drivers, while waiting for his paperwork before setting out on an afternoon run. Paperwork in hand, he says his farewells and then proceeds to his yellow Freightliner Century Class.
Dingler removes the wheels from his wheelchair and passes them up into the cab. He then climbs aboard the hydraulic lift that he designed himself, and slowly rises up to seat level. He passes the rest of his wheelchair into the cab and then pulls himself into the driver’s seat. The chair and its detached wheels are stowed in the sleeper cab, and Dingler’s ready to roll.
I’m riding shotgun with Dingler on this day. He’s a wheelchair-bound owner/operator with International Truckload Services (ITS), working the nightshift hauling east to Cornwall and Brockville or west to Hamilton, Brantford and other destinations in the Greater Toronto Area. His 2004 Freightliner has been equipped with hand controls for the throttle and brake, as well as his homemade lift (the first version was powered by an electric motor, but it proved unreliable and so he designed the hydraulic version in use today).
The truck has a Meritor FreedomLine automated transmission for shifting, though he often prefers to work the gears manually. Besides that, the truck is a pretty standard spec’, with a 435-hp Detroit engine that’s still going strong with 1.3 million kilometres on the odometer. So, why’d the 44-year-old Dingler decide to embark on a career as an owner/operator despite physical limitations that, to most, would seem a definite non-starter?
Dingler has always had a love of equipment and all things mechanical, since growing up on a farm in Durham Region. When he was 20, he was involved in a serious accident in a pick-up truck while hauling a load of wood.
“I fell asleep at the wheel,” Dingler recalls. “I went 151 feet off a dead-end road and a big tree stopped the truck. I never broke one bone in my body but it tore the main aorta from my heart. I don’t remember anything. They took me from the Port Perry hospital to Sunnybrook in Toronto in an air ambulance. I kind of wish I’d remembered the ride.”
Once his condition stabilized and it was clear Dingler would require a wheelchair, he was transferred to the renowned Lyndhurst Rehab Centre in Toronto, where he was to undergo training on how to use his wheelchair and continue on with his life. Help, however, was slow in coming, and eventually Dingler’s patience ran out.
“I was up there for three weeks and they kept saying ‘The doctor will be in today to see you,’ but he never showed up. The third week came and I phoned my buddy and said ‘Can you come pick me up? I’m getting out of here!’ I wasn’t waiting around anymore, I just left and learned (how to use the wheelchair) myself,” Dingler says.
Dingler was so thankful to be alive, he insists he didn’t spent any time feeling sorry for himself.
“Life’s good,” he says. “I’m in a wheelchair, but I’m still alive, so life’s good.”
His physical limitations, however, did make it difficult to earn a living. Dingler had some welding experience, so he’d do odd jobs to get by. The $1,000 monthly disability cheques were his primary source of income for many years, but he says they were barely enough to pay the bills.
“It’s pretty hard to live off that,” he says. “If you have a mortgage to pay and insurance, it’s pretty much gone.”
To that end, Dingler began considering embarking on a career as an owner/operator. He wanted to earn more money, discontinue his disability payments and enjoy more independence. An office job was never in the cards. “I like being dirty,” he quips.
Truck driving seemed like a natural fit for Dingler.
“I’m sitting in the chair all the time, so I might as well be sitting making money, is the way I look at it,” Dingler reasons. “I’m not one for just sitting around.”
Dingler went on the buyer/seller Web site Kijiji and found a 2004 Freightliner Century Class with an automated transmission, and offered to trade his 2001 Dodge Ram pick-up truck with Cummins engine in a straight-up swap. The owner of the Freightliner had recently lost his licence due to health issues and agreed to the trade. Dingler was now the proud owner of a Sunbury-yellow Freightliner. He then set to work designing and building the lift and installing his existing hand controls in the truck. It took some tweaking to get them just right, he says.
Dingler had previous experience driving trucks but had let his A/Z licence lapse long ago. With his truck set up to his liking, he went to take the road test required to earn his A/Z licence and ran into another obstacle: automatic transmissions weren’t allowed for drivers under the age of 65. Dingler sought an exemption, and with the support of his local MPP, was eventually allowed to take the test. He also had to have the truck inspected by the MTO to ensure they were satisfied with the installation of the hand controls. Once they signed off on the equipment, he went to work for Musket Transportation until the contract he was servicing went away and the company was forced to release some of its most recently hired drivers.
Dingler called ITS and they invited him in for an interview.
“I told them my situation and everything on the phone and they said to come on down,” Dingler says. “They were pretty good about it. Not many places will give you an opportunity.”
Chris McMillan, field operations manager with ITS, says it didn’t take long for him to become convinced of Dingler’s abilities.
“Belleville has some really interesting corners and after the first hard right-hander at the bridge downtown, I knew that Mike would be a great addition to the ITS family,” McMillan recalls.
ITS also checked with its insurance broker and was assured, says McMillan, “that if he met all the ITS standards, then there is no concern.”
Dingler is now six months into his career as an owner/operator, and it hasn’t been an easy start. Surprisingly, it hasn’t been his own physical condition that’s slowed him down, rather that of the truck. In the first few weeks of ownership, the air compressor went, then the starter and soon after, the clutch.
“It was $5,400 for the clutch,” Dingler points out. “It costs $2,000 more for an automatic clutch than a normal clutch. It’s not cheap, that’s for sure.”
Fortunately for Dingler, he can do much of his maintenance and repairs himself. He has welded two creepers together so he can get under the truck without his feet dragging on the ground. He also placed a platform on the forks of a forklift and uses that to raise himself to the height necessary for performing maintenance and repairs. He does all his own oil changes and most of the repairs on his own.
As for the job itself, Dingler has been getting along fine, as McMillan describes: “Doing what he said he could do and not receiving any different treatment than any other driver or broker within the ITS family.”
In the winter, Dingler does find it difficult to access the landing gear in snowy yards. And because it takes him extra time to couple and uncouple the trailer, he finds it worthwhile to hire a helper on most runs. He pays his cousin $400 a week to come along and assist with coupling and uncoupling. His assistant will also run into the shipper or receiver’s office to grab the paperwork when the facility isn’t wheelchair-accessible, which is also helpful.
On the road, Dingler’s driving is as steady and professional as you’d expect from any professional driver. He spends as much time as possible in cruise control, which is easier on the hand. He practices old-school courtesies, like flashing his lights to thank another driver for notifying him when it’s safe to complete a pass.
Coming upon a car accident on the 401 near Whitby, all hell breaks loose over the CB radio. ‘The worst drivers in North America are right here,’ asserts one angry driver.
Dingler isn’t bothered by it at all. He patiently works his way to one of the few remaining open lanes, politely allowing other vehicles to pull in front of him when necessary.
In fact, the only gripe I hear from Dingler during our six hours together in the truck is that he can’t stand Q107 DJ Dominik Diamond.
“He talks about himself too much,” Dingler notes, as Diamond engages in a long-winded, self-indulgent rant.
At the company’s Brampton yard, which it leases from Maritime-Ontario, the trailers are parked close together – too tight for Dingler to access the landing gear on his wheelchair. This is where his assistant, who I have displaced in the passenger seat for the day, earns his keep. I offer to lower the landing gear and another ITS driver comes by to help finish uncoupling before hooking up to another trailer. Before long, we’re back on the road with another load destined for the Belleville yard.
This is Dingler’s eighth straight day of work – most of them spent making double runs out of Belleville. He admits he’s secretly hoping there won’t be another trip tonight. Mondays are usually slow, so he likes his chances. But before long, the two-way radio crackles and it’s Randy, the Belleville night dispatcher, asking him if he’s up for another trip to Toronto? Dingler agrees without complaint and shrugs his shoulders.
“Gotta make that money,” he says with a grin. Tomorrow is a well-earned day off, which he’ll spend enjoying a couple beers and tinkering in his shop north of Brighton, his dog Buckwheat no doubt laying nearby. “Life’s good.”
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