Friday, December 17, 2010

Snowstorm at Snowshoe

Last week, I read where a Chicago truck driver was ticketed for three violations in a five-vehicle collision. The guy was ticketed driving too fast for conditions, improper lane usage, and unlawful possession of a radar detector in a commercial vehicle. No one was hurt, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a mess for some people. Hey, it’s slip-slidin’ icy out there – will you slow it down?

As you’ve guessed, I have a story about the torment my wife and I went through after being involved in a snowstorm-related chain reaction wreck two miles from the Snowshoe, PA, exit.

It was just after daylight. We were running in a snow squall that we had just gotten into and were planning on getting off at Snowshoe and waiting for it to pass. I’m sure others were, too. We were all trailing along about 25 mph just trying to keep the vehicle in front of us in sight. It was one of those situations where you could see farther back in the mirrors than you could see ahead.

I looked over and told my wife Geri to watch this truck coming around. The guy had the hammer down and I bet her we’d see him down the road shortly. Well, it was quicker than I thought. This covered wagon went by me like I was painted on the wall. He put me in a total whiteout for a few seconds. When it cleared, there he was – sitting across the road blocking both lanes of I-80.

We were on a slight downgrade. If not for that, we probably all could have rolled to a stop, no harm no foul. As it was, I hit into the side of his trailer, another truck rear ended me; then still another truck and three four-wheelers piled on behind us.

The driver was the only one cited, and people were lined up at the trooper’s cruiser to confirm that. I found out later people going the other way even called in to say what they saw.

Anyway, there were some injuries and lots of damage and everyone was suing everyone and the driver’s company seemed to be in the barrel on this one. But even though their driver admitted guilt and all the evidence pointed to him, the carrier insisted on a jury trial to try to lay off some of the liability on others involved – trying to prove “contributory negligence” of other drivers like me.

The jury’s job was to determine if any of the others of us were at least partly to blame for the accident and put a percentage number on it. In other words, if the jury had found me 20 percent to blame, my company would have been in for 20 percent of the liability.

So maybe 18 months later we went to Pennsylvania, where they put it in front of a 12-person jury for a trial that lasted two days. We all had to testify and these lawyers were serious. They grilled us pretty good.

When the hammer-down driver who slid sideways was on the stand, they asked him what he did as far as work after the accident. He said something like, “I saw the light and quit trucking.” Then the lawyer asked where he was employed now. “I’m trucking again now.” Then he was asked what kind of trucking and he said “hauling air freight.” That’s when I fell out laughing, and the judge told me to shut up or get out.

In the end the jury was out about 30 minutes, came back and told us what everyone already knew. The driver who flew by us and got spun sideways in the middle of the highway was 100 percent to blame.

All in all, Geri and I got our truck fixed and in the process, got two months off in the winter. After the trial, we got a little settlement. But there was a boatload of aggravation to go with it.

I wouldn’t care to do it again.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Payback time

Some people won’t like this, but let me say that Pittsburgh, PA, is my least favorite destination except for New York City, and I’ve always refused to go there so it don’t count. I have been to Pittsburgh 15 times in my career, and of those I’ve probably been lost more than 20 times.

Now, if you have been out there trailer trucking for any time at all, it’s a given that you’ve had it stuck to you (probably many times) by shippers, consignees, etc. Maybe an unpaid load, maybe for a ticket you didn’t deserve. It’s hard to get back at them for any kind of satisfaction or out-and-out revenge.

After I became an owner-operator, I quickly made a rule for myself. If you get treated badly by a shipper or receiver, don’t ever go back and let them mess with you again.

Of course, there are exceptions to all rules. I was doing dedicated liquid tank work for a shipper in Whiting, IN … great people to work for. Everybody in the plant called you by your first name. They offered you coffee and donuts while they loaded your tank. They had a good freight rate and all accessorial charges like out of route, reconsignment, demurrage, etc., were on your next statement. No questions asked or delays. Every freight bill was prepaid, or so I thought.

One day my dispatcher – let’s call him Wayne – offered me a load to Pittsburgh.

No way, Jose.

Later on Wayne said he was in a spot and would I please take the load. Since I’m a player, I agreed to run it, as bad as I hated going to Pittsburgh.

I was sitting on their customer gate at 7 a.m. The man checked my bills and said he would get back to me. Sound familiar?

He got back to me eight hours later and said he was ready to unload me. Anyway, everything is cool except the guy wouldn’t sign my demurrage papers and he had a real nasty attitude. He says things like “you’re just a low-life trucker and should know it’s part of your job.

“That’s OK,” says I. “I’ll get my money.”

Guess what? I didn’t.

I asked Wayne (remember him?) about it, he checked it out, and it turned out to be a customer pickup and they are paying the freight. You know what’s coming next.

Through a strange set of twists and turns, that load comes up again a month later and Wayne is crying tears big as horse apples. I’m the last option, and if I don’t take it they will have to give the load back. The boss would rather eat ground glass than lose a load they have booked.

Easy me, I buckled under and took it with the stipulation that Wayne starts thinking about how he is going repay me.

Here we go again. The freight bills once more called for an a.m. delivery so this time I showed up at 11:45 a.m. The same guy who unloaded me before was standing in the middle of the street waiting for me. “Where the hell have you been? Why weren’t you here at 7?”

He is going postal on me, screaming and cussing like a wild man.

My turn: “I’m on time, it’s an a.m. delivery and it’s still a.m. Where have I been you ask? Just down the road at a diner playing video poker all morning. … Last time you kept me here 10 hours. You’ll have to work late to do it again!”

I don’t know that I’ve seen anybody any madder than this guy. I suspect he must have had something really important to get to but had to receive this load first.

The sun was shining in Pittsburgh that day, and I didn’t get lost either.