Bad rap drives misconceptions for truckers on I-81

Despite their reputation, truckers are some of the safest drivers on the road.



As he motors up and down Interstate 81 in Virginia, Jack Schwab is supposed to represent one of the greatest hazards on the road.

He drives a tractor-trailer.

While delivering paper to the Shenandoah Valley one April morning, however, Schwab did not crush a single compact car, tailgate any pickup trucks or hammer any minivans with his high beams.

He signaled and moved left for a fellow trucker parked on the shoulder. He activated his truck’s flashers after losing speed on a hill. He braked little, a sign of good speed control.

"Try to be as cautious as I can," said Schwab, whose rig was loaded to nearly 40 tons for a noon delivery.

Some people who drive I-81 cite heavy trucks as a major risk to people, property and peaceful driving. At street level, there is tension.

Trucks line up along I-81.

Trucks line up along Interstate 81. Photo by KYLE GREEN | THE ROANOKE TIMES

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Types of trucks on Virginia's highways

Highway trucking uses a range of trailers suited to the freight:

  • Dry van (a long rectangular box): general merchandise.
  • Shipping container (a rectangular box with reinforcing ribbing): imported goods.
  • Refrigerated van: food, pharmaceuticals.
  • Flatbed: construction materials, machinery and other bulky goods that can be stacked and strapped down.
  • Tank truck: gasoline, chemicals, milk.
  • Vehicle carrier: new automobiles.

Source: American Trucking Association

But far from the reckless renegades they are sometimes made out to be, big-rig truckers turn in stellar performances. Truckers rank among the most lawful, least dangerous drivers on the road.

Their safety is important because trucks are a staple on I-81. At more than 23 percent of the traffic — the highest percentage of any major road in the state, according to a Cambridge Systematics report based on 2008 Virginia Department of Transportation data -- they compel cars and light trucks to share the road.

Truck involvement in wrecks is of a similar magnitude. Of 3,109 vehicles involved in I-81 crashes in 2008, slightly more than 20 percent (635) were trucks, according to a Roanoke Times analysis of VDOT data.

But when a wreck happens, the consequences to vehicle occupants are more severe when a truck is involved. More than 93 percent of the trucks on I-81 are five- and six-axle big rigs, also known as tractor-trailers because they consist of a truck tractor towing a freight-laden trailer.

To Schwab, 67, the message the public has received about truckers is a mixed one.

"I'm sure a lot of people fear 'em," he said of big rigs. "And a lot of people, they just assume the truck driver knows what he’s doing."

I-81 a critical national route for goods delivery

Schwab, who lives in Hardy, has driven since 1970, covering 120,000 to 130,000 miles a year until turning part time a few years back. Schwab said he has never had a major wreck on countless cross-country and regional trips, though he has blown tires and was once struck by another vehicle. He was ticketed in 2004 for defective equipment.

So few incidents marred his career, the lone story he shared was of a flying sheet of ice that slipped from the roof of another truck and shattered his windshield during a nighttime trip on U.S. 220 at Eagle Rock.

In spite of his experience, this grandfather of 12 still keeps two hands on the wheel most of the time.

When Schwab merged onto I-81 at the Daleville-Trouville interchange, he entered a major North American trade route. Although he was making an in-state delivery, about 60 percent of the heavy trucks are passing through.

Trucker Jack Schwab has been driving tractor-trailers for 40 years without a serious crash.

Trucker Jack Schwab has been driving tractor-trailers for 40 years without a serious crash. "I'm sure a lot of people fear 'em," he said of big rigs. "And a lot of people, they just assume the truck driver knows what he's doing." Photo by KYLE GREEN | THE ROANOKE TIMES

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On this day, Schwab will earn $85 for dropping a load of rolled paper at a Harrisonburg-area business. Roanoke-based Lawson Logistics , the company he works for, agreed to allow a reporter to ride along on the trip.

Big-rig drivers earned a median, full-time wage of $37,730 in May 2009, said the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The occupation had 3.3 million drivers in 2008, about one-third of them minorities and about 5 percent women, the American Trucking Association said.

Lawson, which is both a warehousing and trucking firm, handles freight in a vast system designed for business efficiency. Rather than keeping inventory on hand themselves, companies let Lawson keep it for them.

When a customer requests a batch of goods, one of Lawson's fleet of drivers runs the shipment to its destination in an exercise called "just-in-time delivery" that is credited with saving American industry big bucks in inventory storage costs.

The closer to a highway such as I-81 that a manufacturer locates, the better the system works.

Moving on the road with raw materials such as the paper Schwab was carrying were the finished goods consumed in American homes and businesses.

Retailers such as Wal-Mart have built warehouses within the I-81 corridor. Each day, 160 inbound and outbound trucks associated with Wal-Mart's Harrisonburg warehouse use I-81, said Billy Vaughn, director of community development for Rockingham County. I-81 is the route of choice for many loads because of where it is.

"If you're a garlic producer in Southern California, you want to get that product to the market in New York City. It's coming over 81," said Fred Altizer, former assistant to the chief engineer at VDOT.

Taking the logical route, the pungent load leaves Southern California on Interstate 5, gets on Interstate 40 in Barstow, Calif., and goes east for 2,000 miles to Knoxville, Tenn. Outside Knoxville, 80 miles south of Virginia , I-40 merges with I-81, which heads northeast.

Now, consider watermelons grown in Florida. Melons bound for Northern markets leave Florida on Interstate 95 but typically cut west after Savannah, Ga., because of what Altizer called "a black hole" between Fredericksburg and the tunnel in Baltimore -- a stretch of I-95 so congested that travel time is unpredictable. Such shipments exit I-95 onto Interstate 26, follow it to Interstate 77 near Columbia, S.C., and follow I-77 to I-81.

Much of I-81 truck traffic is "diversionary" to avoid I-95, Altizer said.

So, heavy trucks on I-81 serve an economic purpose.

Driving instructor Jack Hoback (left) laughs with driver Guy Ha as they pull into a parking lot after a ride. Ha, 58, left Hawaii for the Mainland in 2009 and settled in Botetourt County.

Driving instructor Jack Hoback (left) laughs with driver Guy Ha as they pull into a parking lot after a ride. Ha, 58, enrolled in the $5,000, four-week school at the Wytheville location of Alliance Tractor Trailer Training Centers and received a commercial driver's license in March. Photo by KYLE GREEN | THE ROANOKE TIMES

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Truck-driving requirements

Virginia requires a commercial driver's license to operate a truck weighing 26,001 pounds or more, any vehicle that holds 15 or more passengers and any vehicle that hauls hazardous waste. Trucking companies that hire rookie tractor-trailer drivers typically provide additional training and assign an experienced driver to ride in the passenger seat at the beginning.

To get a CDL, you must:

  • Be 18 (21 to drive out of state).
  • Pass a vision screening.
  • Pass a medical screening.
  • Show proof of Virginia residency.
  • Speak and write English well enough to converse with the public, read highway signs and complete records.
  • Pay a fee, typically $64.
  • Have driving privileges that have not been suspended or revoked during the previous two years. A person who has used a vehicle for a drug crime is barred for life . There is a one-year waiting period before application after a conviction for driving under the influence and a 60-day waiting period for convictions of any two of the following within three years: reckless driving, following too closely, exceeding the speed limit by 15 mph or more or committing a traffic violation that leads to a fatality.
  • Present a certificate of completion from a commercial driving training program, typically four weeks long and costing several thousand dollars.
  • Pass a written test with a score of at least 80 percent .
  • Produce a license-appropriate commercial vehicle for use during an on-road test.

"It is just so important for the public to realize that there's nothing you can probably open your eyes and look at that wasn't brought to them on a truck," said Gary Kelley, senior vice president of human resources and driver services at the Maryland trucking firm DM Bowman Inc.

"The food you eat tonight, the clothes you're wearing right now all came on a truck. Take the truck off the road and you will be naked -- and hungry."

The American Trucking Association said the trucking industry hauled 10.2 billion tons of freight, or 69 percent of the nation's freight tonnage, in 2008. Rail, by comparison, moved 14 percent.

Daily truck traffic on I-81 in Virginia has grown from 5,000 in 1985 to 9,300 today. Trucking forecasts predict a doubling of I-81 truck traffic -- to near 20,000 a day -- in 25 years.

In spite of heavy reliance on trucks, government analysts do not record the specific freight on board individual trucks, unless the load is hazardous and then it must bear an identification placard. There is no official record of the type and quantity of freight hauled on I-81.

Truckers, drivers disagree on fault

Schwab flashed a degree of disgust when a small green car cut from the left lane to the right lane, right in front of his truck, a black International tractor towing a 48-foot trailer.

"Where's the man going?"

Cutting in is dangerous for the passenger vehicle and the truck, truckers say, because it leaves them little room to safely slow or stop in the event of an emergency.

"A lot of people, soon as they clear that bumper, they'll whip it on over there," Schwab said.

Tailgating is another irritant. Both truckers and passenger vehicles do it, Schwab said. The risk is, a tire could blow, taking with it the mud flap and its mount -- just the combination to knock the vehicle following the truck off kilter.

Another problem is distracted drivers. "You see women, in the morning especially, putting on makeup," Schwab said.

He confirmed that many people eat, many talk by phone, and some do both at the same time. Some type text messages and engage in other activities such as map reading that are either banned or strongly discouraged for truckers because it takes the eyes off the road.

Passenger motorists, "four-wheelers" to big rig drivers, have their complaints about the noisy tractor-trailers that ply the highway alone or in sequences of two, three or more.

For some motorists, glancing out the window at the sight of a 40-ton, 14-foot-tall machine perhaps two arm lengths away is a source of tension and fear.

But trucks are not overrepresented in wrecks.

In 23,709 crashes on the interstate in a recent 11-year period, 21 percent of the 37,107 vehicles involved were trucks, according to the analysis. That’s about equal to the presence of trucks in traffic. The drivers of those trucks, police found, took "no improper action" 40 percent of the time. For other vehicles, it was 35 percent.

The top citations to truck drivers were similar to other automobiles, including driver inattention and following too closely. They were more likely to be cited for improper lane change, cutting in and hit-and-run. They were less often cited with traveling too fast or failing to maintain control.

At their harshest, critics charge that some truckers are too dazed to drive, on account of the long hours, and too often operate faulty equipment. Truckers are allowed by federal regulation that applies in most states to drive 11 hours in a row and be on duty for 14 hours, provided they have previously had 10 consecutive hours off duty. They can go an extra two hours if slowed down by unexpected bad weather. A trucker may be on duty for up to 60 hours a week. Truckers’ log books and vehicles are subject to inspection by government authorities.

"Ninety-five percent of tractor-trailer drivers in the United States are careful, good, straightforward citizens," said Charlottesville personal injury lawyer Brad Chandler, who has represented drivers bringing damage suits against tractor-trailer drivers and trucking companies as a specialty for the past 10 years of his 40-year legal career.

"It's the other 5 percent that cause the wrecks and, generally, it goes back to fatigue. They're overworked."

In addition, rather than fully inspecting their trucks' brakes, tires and other features daily as they should before driving, some spend only a couple of minutes taking a cursory glance to get moving, Chandler said.

Technology changes improve truck safety

To be sure, the enormousness of trucks poses a risk. And it's usually the people in the passenger vehicle who suffer worst.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an arm of the U.S. Department of Transportation, found in a 2004 study that fatal wrecks that involve a medium- or heavy-duty truck result in the death of one or more occupants in the other vehicle more than 75 percent of the time.

Fifty-two of the 120 fatalities on I-81 from 2004-2008 occurred in truck-involved wrecks, according to a Roanoke Times analysis. That's 43 percent.

Why? Large trucks weigh 20 to 30 times as much as light vehicles and take 20 percent to 40 percent more distance to stop.

The football field-sized stopping distance for some trucks, a long-standing safety concern, will be cut -- by manufacturers responding to an upcoming change federal law.

The government has reduced the maximum allowed stopping distance for newly built, heavy-duty tractor-trailers by 30 percent from the current standard of 355 feet. That means new trucks must be able to stop within 250 feet when moving at 60 mph.

The requirement will apply to large trucks in 2013. Some manufacturers will meet the deadline sooner.

Speed is governed, too. From the moment Schwab cranked the engine, his accelerator was restricted by a governor -- a device that controls the truck's speed -- to 66 mph and 72 if on cruise control.

The highest priority voiced by Lawson General Manager Stanley Staten is safe operation of the vehicle.

"If it's not safe, don't do it," Staten said.

For planning purposes, trucking firms say they count on averaging well under the governed speed.

Howell's Motor Freight in Cloverdale uses 45 mph to 50 mph as an average rate of speed for allocating time to its deliveries, said Tim Shephard , vice president of safety and risk management. No trustworthy company would commit drivers to destinations that they can only reach on time by speeding, though it does happen at less reputable firms, he said.

"There are a few bad apples that push the limits," he said.

But most companies strive to eliminate the risk of accidents. Howell offers four hours a year of safety training and penalizes drivers for moving violations through such actions as loss of safety bonus, suspension or termination. That's in addition to the sanctions government agencies might impose.

Use of any motor vehicle -- a truck or not -- for a felony drug crime results in a lifetime disqualification from truck driving. Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs in any vehicle is grounds for a one-year disqualification from commercial vehicle driving, under federal minimum standards handed down to the states.

The federal law prescribes a 60-day disqualification for two convictions in three years of any of these offenses while driving a commercial motor vehicle: going 15 mph or more over the speed limit, reckless driving, improperly changing lanes or tailgating. The disqualification is 120 days for three offenses in three years.

Taking a cue to the emphasis on safety, manufacturers have brought out a host of truck-safety features, including forward-looking radar and a blind-spot warning system.

"Vehicles are safer coming off the assembly line," said Michael Kerns, president of the National Capital Chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers.

Truckers slower, more sober than other drivers

Col. Steven Flaherty, the superintendent of Virginia State Police, said truck safety has changed a lot in the past 25 years.

When state police began inspecting trucks in 1982, about 80 percent failed. Now, heavy trucks fail equipment inspections at about the same rate as passenger vehicles brought in for their annual inspection -- 23 percent. Seen in this context, truckers are making significant progress, Flaherty said.

Trucks on average go a few miles per hour over the speed limit, but speed to a lesser degree than passenger vehicles. Trucks average nearly 67 mph and passenger vehicles average nearly 72 mph on I-81 in the Roanoke and New River valleys where the speed limit is 65, according to a VDOT analysis that the agency said may be slightly on the high side.

Trucks average nearly 65 mph and passenger vehicles average nearly 68 mph where the limit is 60 mph, a spot stretching from mile marker 136 to mile marker 147 in Salem and Roanoke County, the analysis showed.

Compliance with weight restrictions is high. The Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles cited only one in 300 trucks weighed at its Troutville facility for weight violations in March. That’s typical year around, according to Manager Gary Kingery.

Moving violations do not appear to be a significant issue for truckers, either, according to data released by state police.

Weight technician Barry Renick watches trucks pass the I-81 weigh station in Troutville. Drivers of rigs that exceed the 80,000-pound weight limit are given an hour to rebalance their load or shift axle positions. If that fails, they're given a citation and are allowed to continue their trip.

Weight technician Barry Renick watches trucks pass the I-81 weigh station in Troutville. Drivers of rigs that exceed the 80,000-pound weight limit are given an hour to rebalance their load or shift axle positions. If that fails, they're given a citation and are allowed to continue their trip. Photo by KYLE GREEN | THE ROANOKE TIMES

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In 2009, commercial vehicles received one in 53 speeding tickets and one in 75 reckless driving tickets written by state police in the agency's 14-county Salem-based territory. The rates are about the same statewide, according to data released by agency spokeswoman Corinne Geller.

Kevin Humphries, a trooper who patrols I-81, said of truckers: "Most of them are pretty decent out there."

When it comes to alcohol, there is evidence that big-rig truckers are a more sober lot than passenger vehicle drivers.

Slightly less than 1 percent of drivers of moderate to heavy trucks involved in fatal crashes had a blood-alcohol content of at least 0.08 percent -- the legal limit for driving in all 50 states and the District of Columbia -- in 2007, the latest year federal statistics were compiled by the American Trucking Association. In comparison, nearly 23 percent of passenger vehicle drivers involved in a fatal crash had a high BAC, the ATA said.

Compliance with seat belt laws is higher, too, for truckers than passenger car drivers.

But when truckers wreck without a seatbelt, the consequences can be severe. Neil Canada of Charlotte, N.C., was partially ejected Monday when the tractor-trailer he was driving ran off the right side of I-81 near Radford. He was pinned underneath and died.

Virginia officials see an urgent need to improve truck safety. At a Wednesday news conference, they are scheduled to highlight new enforcement strategies that are designed to monitor big rigs more closely on I-81.

On the topic of wrecks, passenger vehicles rear-end big rigs about three times as often as big rigs rear-end passenger vehicles, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Additionally, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute completed a pivotal study by reviewing video shot from attached cameras while drivers of both cars and trucks went about their usual driving. Nonvideo data from vehicle-based sensors were also considered.

The 2007 work concluded that drivers of "light vehicles," the category for passenger cars and light trucks, were responsible for 78 percent of crashes and near crashes involving at least one light vehicle and heavy vehicle each. Drivers of heavy vehicles were found at fault in 22 percent of incidents.

Clayton Boyce, spokesman for the American Trucking Association in Washington, D.C., said the institute's study validly faults passenger vehicle drivers.

"Cars are more of a traffic hazard than trucks. Yes, trucks are bigger, heavier vehicles, but cars are more hazardous. They cause more crashes than trucks do," Boyce said.

Yes, some truckers pose a risk, Boyce said, which is one reason the ATA supports making engine governors set at 65 mph or slower mandatory.

"We want unsafe truck drivers off the road. Let them do something else for a living," he said.

Schwab neared his delivery destination, running more than 15 minutes early. He dropped the load, turned and headed for Roanoke. The return trip was uneventful, much like the hundreds of thousands of miles he'd covered on previous days.

"Good Lord's riding with me. Has a whole lot to do with it."

Staff writer Matt Chittum contributed to this report.

Updated: Sunday, June 06, 2010 | About this series | Credits
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