Your lifelines

by George Smagala

HAMILTON, Ont. – I first met Ross in the late ’70s, trucking the endless Montreal turns that were our lives along Hwy. 401. From his first words on the CB it was evident that he had a dry, yet keen sense of humor. Ross had the ability to tear down the superficial and get right to the point, albeit with a sly smile. He simply personified the great majority of professional drivers: hardworking, honest, with a good grip on reality.

Even after I switched to another company and its U.S.-bound loads in the 1980s, I was still able to catch up with him and a few other friends during occasional trips into Quebec. Once in awhile, three of us from the Hamilton, Ont. area would go for Sunday brunch with our wives and girlfriends.

I have to admit that I had not seen Ross in a few years. You veteran drivers know that friendships among drivers never end, it’s just that we’re limited in our opportunities to meet. But imagine my shock when I opened the newspaper to find out that Ross was killed in an accident on Nov. 22.

I must admit I was stunned for a few minutes, not believing what I had just read. After collecting my thoughts, I wondered how Phyllis and the rest of his family were coping. Then I thought of the good times. Then I got angry. I wondered why it happened, how it happened, and who was responsible.

Circumstances leading up to these sad situations are all too typical. A young, inexperienced and probably poorly trained automobile driver returning from an overnight casino trip had cut off and hit Ross’ 50-ton tractor-trailer at highway speed.

Like the professional, experienced driver that he was, Ross applied the brakes and steered for the shoulder. Unfortunately, the collision occurred near an overpass, where shoulder morphed first into guardrail and then into concrete barrier. The truck crashed through this obstruction that ripped at the undercarriage of the rig, but the cab remained intact.

It was still survivable.

When the tractor dug into the dirt and grass on the other side of the barrier, it jack-knifed to the left and the cab was knocked partially off its mounts. But the interior retained its integrity.

Once again, it was survivable.

Experienced collision investigators said after the crash that Ross did everything in his power to minimize the effects of the initial impact – an impact that was not of his making. They also said that Ross should have survived the ride relatively unscathed.

Anyone familiar with this story would have to say that Ross was a hero for not crushing that car and/or pushing it into the guardrail. Ross had a long and distinguished career, an enviable safety record, and the character and instincts of a true hero. Many of you out there on the big road right now have, at one time or another, saved lives through your unselfish and professional instincts.

Without question, Ross saved the lives of the people riding in the car that November morning. But Ross was too busy saving their lives to save his own.

So what happened? As much as it pains me to say this, Ross was not wearing his seat belt. He was ejected and killed by his own truck. He would have been fine inside the cab. Outside the cab, he didn’t stand a chance.

He used all his skills and remembered all his past experiences to save other lives, yet he forgot about his own life by not buckling up.

The driver of the car was charged with one count of dangerous driving causing death, and one count of dangerous driving causing bodily harm. Both occupants of the car sustained non-life-threatening injuries. The case is before the courts at this time.

Ross’ co-workers at ED Smith Transportation feel the loss of a great guy who kept them on their toes and made them look at life from more than just one angle.

And what about some of my old trucking friends? Guys like Donkey, The Colonel, Lippy, Chilly Willie, Big John, Lone Ranger and many others who got to know Ross over the years?

Well, we try not to think about it too much. And we will not talk about it a hell of a lot. We’ve an image to protect, you know. We’ll stow the memories in the back of our hearts and minds and carry on.

Getting to the heart of the matter, how is Ross’ family coping? Is it not the family that suffers most? And what about Phyllis, Ross’ special sweetheart and fiancee for close to 30 years? Can you imagine her anguish? Only those people can rightfully answer these sensitive questions.

But if you have any questions or reservations regarding seatbelt use, Ross has just answered them.

Next time you climb into your truck, get a grip on the reality of being a hero. Get a grip on your seatbelt.

You might have to save some lives today. n

– George Smagala is a driver for Labatt Breweries.

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