Friday, December 3, 2010

Winter driving from a straw hat driver’s point of view

It’s amazing how I’ve looked at trucking in winter conditions the past 10 years or so, as opposed to 30 or 40 years ago. I can remember times when I was home for the weekend and snowstorms moved in and I couldn’t wait till it was time to go. Just so you know, any kind of random testing hadn’t been thought of yet, but I would have passed.

One time on a union job with a private carrier, my boss said he wasn’t forcing me out, but would I please try to get an oversize load of long span trusses, 100-footers, up to our customer in Flint, MI? It was 300 miles. The company was late getting them built and delivered. Read that: “Get the load off the yard; now it’s the driver’s fault it’s late.”

The problem was, although it was dry and dusty at time, the TV and radio stations were telling people to get food, fuel and meds for four days and get home because a big one is on the way.

Me and the boss knew I had little chance of making it. The Great Blizzard of ‘78 was just 12 hours out, and I was driving right into it. Hey, I was guaranteed eight hours a day and a motel if I needed it, even though we had sleepers. Sounded like an adventure to me, and it was. That was 32 years ago. Even back then I at least had enough sense to quit early and get a motel while I could.

I look up to those who run the Northwest in the winter. They got more sand than I do or ever had. I have a now-retired friend who ran west out of Denver on I-70 (my worst nightmare in the winter). With all the storms, road shutdowns, hanging iron – maybe several times a trip – all I ever heard him complain about was the “slat rats” in their four-wheelers, coming and going to the ski resorts around Vail and Aspen, etc.

Me, I carried chains to be legal out there, but I put them on once, didn’t like the experience. So, on my last truck, they hung neatly in their racks for 14 years. I looked the part but didn’t play it, which was fairly easy as an owner-operator the last 25 years. I stayed south in the winter and loved running the Northwest in the summer.

Call me a wimp or a straw-hat driver; that’s fine. Somewhere along the line I lost my nerve. The last few years I got to the point I couldn’t stand the least little bit of snow or icy roads. Several reasons I guess. Mainly it was everyone was going faster than me, often as not, keeping me in whiteout conditions as they blew by me. Assuming everybody is following the first rule of inclement weather driving: “Only go as fast as you feel comfortable” – the gap just got too wide.

Comfortable to me means sitting back in my leather captain’s chair and taking it easy. To some others it must mean being hyped up, on the edge of your seat gassing on it and yakking on the CB about that old geezer they just passed.

If I was in charge, I would change two things. The western states seem to shut the roads down when they see it’s going to be ugly and, when it’s the right time, get the crews out to do their thing. I think the eastern states refuse to close the roads until wrecks literally force them to do so. I’d change that.

The other thing, and of course the biggie, slow down.

But don’t listen to me. I’m the guy in the straw ball cap and bowling shirt, hoping one of those Mojave sand storms don’t kick up. If it does, I’ll park, plug in a movie, and see what’s in the blizzard bag that looks good.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Have blizzard bag will travel

Winter time is here and it doesn’t take much – a slick road, a gust of wind or you or someone else doing something stupid like going too fast for conditions – to put you in the ditch. Nobody wants to pay $2,000 to get a $900 load pulled out.

Actually, that two grand number could be a best-case scenario. That’s assuming you didn’t tear up your truck, cause property damage, or take someone out with you. A simple slide-off could be a nightmare. You’ve heard the expression, “the road was so bad you had to make a reservation to get in the ditch?”

Actually, it’s like “you need a reservation to get pulled out of the ditch.”

What if they can’t get to you quickly? You’re at the mercy of the troopers to see that you get shelter somewhere. Your truck is 10 miles away in a snow bank and you are stuck in a motel if you are lucky. If it’s a company truck, you are liable to be fired, with a black mark on your record. If you are an owner-operator, you are going to be sweating bullets because that’s what o/o’s do.

I’ve been out there a lot of winters and only had one incident. That was where another driver was going 60. The rest of us were doing 25 in a snow squall, and this Billy Big Rigger took out six of us in front of a dozen witnesses. My wife, Geri, was with me. We didn’t leave the road and although our Pete was a little beat up, it was drivable. After all the paperwork the next exit was two miles away. It was Snowshoe, PA.

After breakfast the sun came out and Geri and I headed for the house – and body shop – knowing we’d be off the rest of the winter and speculating about the settlement that was coming.

I’ve been fortunate to have never had a job or lease where I “had” to get the load there as scheduled. I remember back before cell phones when conditions started getting bad and I would get in somewhere to wait it out. There would be drivers lined up in the phone rooms calling in to see if they could park it. My theory was, why call in now and argue with someone in a nice warm office? I’d wait until morning and call and tell them what I did.

I don’t ever remember catching any flack over this. On the other hand, I felt for those guys (some union drivers) with their daycabs pulling a set of joints being told “if the road ain’t closed, why are you calling?”

My method of operation was always quit early, and get in somewhere while there were parking spots left. About 95 percent of the time it would be better by morning. By then they would have cleaned up the roads, and the salt and chemicals had done their job. We got a wet road, and you could truck along at the speed limit kicking up a rooster tail of salt spray.

Only thing to slow you down is backing off while passing the wreckers that are pulling those guys out of the ditch that just had to make it through.

My advice: Always carry a “blizzard bag” and stock it with stuff you can eat, but not something you really like. That way it will be there when you need it. Quit early when you know it’s miserable conditions ahead.

With today’s technology tracking, the weather is easy. Back in the day, the CB radio was a handy tool. If you kept hearing about stuff like “road shut down ahead of you,” hey, I’m looking for a place to land. And preferably a place with a cafĂ© and bar. If not, just a safe spot. I got my blizzard bag – and these days my toys, like laptop, TV/DVD.

Cool your jets, it’ll be better in the morning, I promise. But if you see a flock of geese migrating to the south and instead of flying they are walking down the shoulder of the interstate, you may want to rethink that.