With millions of truck drivers across the US and Canada it’s pretty hard to stand out and be recognized by the Truckload Carriers Association, which gives out just a mere handful of prestigious awards every year.
However, the TCA has had no trouble noticing Terrance Smith – a two-time TCA award-winner who drives for SLH Transport in Moncton, and lives Miramichi, N.B.
Smith has been a truck driver for more than 42 years (the last four have been with SLH) and at 63 years old, he’s accumulated more than 4.75 million accident-free miles and countless stories along the way. He’s cheerful yet honest, all while being modest about his accomplishments.
Smith’s accident-free miles, he said, can be credited to the little tricks he’s picked up along his four-decade long career.
“I don’t drive fast,” he began when asked how he’s managed to stay such a safe driver. “I only drive 60 miles an hour. I don’t tailgate. And I don’t make unnecessary lane changes, because every time you make a lane change, you put yourself in a situation where you could get into a fender bender.”
Smith’s tricks seem to follow the “back to basics” rule, but it’s hard to make an argument against them, since his record is awfully close to perfect.
“Ultimately, if you’re going to go a career without having an accident, there’s some luck but a lot of it is things that you learn and habits you form,” he said. “Now that I’m older, I’m a lot wiser and I don’t drive tired. When you’re younger, you push yourself and you try to do a lot of great things. You could stay up all night playing pinball machines if you want. But you’re going to be tired the next day. You can’t sleep and drive truck.”
Like many other truck drivers, Smith knew trucking was in his veins at a young age and was influenced by his father who had a construction company. He claims to have been around equipment vehicles growing up, like dump trucks and cement trucks and eventually worked for a petroleum company after high school because they were looking for drivers. He drove as a company driver for it for 10 years until he bought his very first truck at the young age of 32.
“I got to a plateau,” he said when asked why he chose to become an owner/operator. “I got to the point where I needed and wanted a challenge, so I bought my first used truck. When you buy a truck, driving it is only 50% of the deal. The other 50% is managing your money and your maintenance for the rest of your life.”
Smith said he likes to buy a new truck every three to three-and-a-half years because he likes to keep up with all the new equipment.
“I also try to keep everything well maintained, because if you don’t, your truck can let you down and that can cause an accident.”
During my hour-long interview with him, Smith credited much of his success as an owner/op to his wife of 40 years. (Her name is Roxanne and after she arranged the interview for me with him over the phone and after e-mailing back and forth for a few weeks it was clear why these two are together – they are arguably the kindest couple I have ever encountered).
Not only does she support his career, he said, but she helps organize his paperwork and keeps his financials in line.
“We run it like a business,” he said. “Because you have to worry about everything: what kind of truck you buy, how you borrow your money, what’s the trade-in value if you buy the wrong product? We have a system that works and we follow it.”
His favourite part of the job, he said, is that he gets to be a part of a community he is proud of.
“Ninety per cent of my friends are drivers,” he said. “And there’s just a certain bond between us. We’re always texting, e-mailing or calling each other because there’s just a language among drivers – it’s universal. Even if I go on vacation in Mexico, I can spot a truck driver on the resort because we all feed off each other. My friends and I, we talk about tires, about fuel mileage and efficiency. It’s a culture, really.”
Smith says the hard part about the job is that though being an owner/operator does provide a certain level of flexibility, he is still on the road for 300 out of 365 days of the year.
“Your wife has to be behind you. That’s very important,” he said. “If you don’t have a partner that shares your passion, you’re going to have a problem because as a driver you have to sacrifice a lot and you’re going to miss a lot.”
Smith said he was overcome when he learned he was a finalist for the TCA’s 2013 Owner-Operator of the Year Award. As he was in the final three, he travelled to Grapevine, Texas where the awards were presented. When a Canadian won the award for company drivers, Smith threw in the towel.
“At the time, I thought there’s no way there’s going to be two Canadian winners,” he said.
But sure enough, Smith came out on top and took home the prize that day despite not preparing a speech. He said he was very humbled and honoured by the award.
Smith was also recognized by the TCA as a Highway Angel back in 2008, when he helped an elderly woman, who had had a stroke, out of the way of traffic when she was on the road trying to flag down someone for help.
“I’m glad I helped her that day,” he said of the incident.
It’s really no wonder the TCA has given Smith two notable awards – he is a professional driver through and through. He makes note of looking, speaking and acting professional in front of clients all while putting safety first and genuinely takes pride in his work.
“There’s some people who just drive trucks – we call them steering wheel holders – they’re not professional. Then there’s a whole sector that take pride in what they do and I’m proud to be a truck driver,” he said when asked why he believes he’s been so successful in the industry.
“I take pride in what I do. I don’t just hook on to a trailer and go down the road. I look presentable. My paperwork is filled out properly. My truck is working. And there’s a certain reward in that – I try to do it better than other drivers.”
Sonia Straface is the associate editor of Truck News and Truck West magazines. She graduated from Ryerson University's journalism program in 2013 and enjoys writing about health and wellness and HR issues surrounding the transportation industry. Follow her on Twitter: @SoniaStraface. All posts by Sonia Straface