Training Wheels

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I often wonder what I’d be up to if I hadn’t landed this job. After two decades at the wheel, I needed a change. I was running out of challenges and ladders to climb. I was looking for something fulfilling and lucrative but wasn’t sure which way to go.

For a while, I fancied myself becoming a driver trainer of some sort. Not a “safety and compliance” kind of trainer, but a hands-on in-the-cab trainer — a teacher. I’d done enough of that kind of work to appreciate the satisfaction one gets from seeing the light come on, but frankly, I wasn’t prepared to run team to do it. Running team takes commitment to a whole new level.

I’ve done enough team driving to say unabashedly that I really admire those who do it. It’s a rough life.

In writing the feature story in this issue on driver-development programs, I began to reflect on the commitment required to take newly licensed drivers and grow them into safe and productive professionals.

Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of teaching dozens of drivers how to load and unload various kinds of tankers, from liquid and dry bulk to cryogenic equipment. We’d work together on a dozen or more loads — a day at a time, but nothing approaching a full-time commitment.

Then, I took my wife under my arm; bringing her from a newly licensed driver to someone I was comfortable sleeping behind while the truck hurtled down the road.

The pros at Markel in Aberfoyle, Ont. taught her the basics, long before “Earning Your Wheels” was even a twinkle in HRDC’s eyes. We’d been hired, conditionally, as team drivers by a company in Niagara Falls, Ont., to haul cyanide to gold mines in Nevada. Imagine being fresh out of driving school and being put to work with a truck full of cyanide.

The boss said he’d give us six weeks to prove ourselves, which really meant if, within six weeks, I became comfortable sleeping while she drove, we could keep the job. We started as super-singles running between Louisville, Ky. and Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. That gave us time for training and time for her to solo on quieter highways, usually at night, where she couldn’t get into too much trouble.

I’d sit beside her, kind of thinking out loud as I drove, offering up a running commentary of what I was seeing, thinking about, and reacting to. She learned to see things and respond the same way.

After a couple of weeks, I could manage a nap while she drove, but solid sleep eluded me. The slightest tip to the truck, or the sound of the brakes coming on had me peeking out the curtain. Now remember, we were married, and we had a pretty solid relationship.

But let me tell you, going that long on naps only, and with the inevitable difficulties that popped up, we were testing the limits of our compatibility.

It’s with that thought that I salute all the team trainers out there, and the carriers that make that kind of training environment possible. In my opinion, that’s the only way to grow good drivers. Today’s highways are no place to be learning on the fly, alone. Too many things can go wrong, and with no one to turn to for answers, the rookie is severely disadvantaged. Talk about getting beaten up –often to the point where the rookie quits, discouraged and disgusted.

And the industry loses another of those rare birds who still want to become truck drivers. That doesn’t serve anyone well.

I’ve heard tales of drivers with five months’ experience becoming driver trainers, and I’ve heard of 20-year guys giving it all up because the fleets they work for couldn’t see fit to sweeten the pot a little, like offering a few extra cents a mile, or a double bunk sleeper.

I hope our better carriers embrace the kind of driver development I write about in the story. There are no better resources to teach the new drivers than the older ones, but they need the support of a committed fleet.

My wife made it, by the way. More to her credit, than mine. She had the double burden of learning a new trade while putting up with a cranky and demanding partner. It’s probably a blessing that I wound up here rather than there, though I’m sure some would disagree.

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Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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