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Three women complete truck driver training course

June 15, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

HEDGESVILLE, W.Va. - Driving a tractor-trailer on Interstate 81, Janet Nesslerodt did a half-dozen things at once.

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She watched her dashboard gauges, scanned her mirrors, double-shifted, eyed other motorists and predicted what each would do next.

All the while, Nesslerodt explained her every move. It was for the benefit of a passenger, but also to show Don Barney, her instructor at James Rumsey Technical Institute Truck Driver Training, that she was aware of her mistakes.

Barney, 61, has taught at James Rumsey for 13 years after a 10-year career as a truck driver.

About one-fourth of his students are women. The class that finished Wednesday, though, was composed of three women and one man. Barney said that ratio is a first.

The women have their commercial licenses and jobs lined up.

Nesslerodt, 30, of Inwood, W.Va., starts orientation next week at D.M. Bowman Inc. in Williamsport, where her brother-in-law has been employed for 24 years.

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She'll work shifts from 3 a.m. to 3 p.m., freeing up her evenings so she can be with her two sons.

She had experience going into the class - driving flatbed delivery trucks for her husband's wooden stake company - but needed to learn to drive with 10 speeds and air brakes.

Sheri Rocker, 35, will drive long-haul refrigeration units for a company called Sunflower.

She'll be on the road for six to eight weeks at a time, driving as a team with her fianc, Raymond Washington, who graduated from a previous James Rumsey class. They'll have six days off between trips.

"I wanted to be a truck driver since I was 10 years old," she said. "I got into food service and I was in the Army for eight years. My goal was to be on the road by the time I was 36."

Rocker, who is from Hampton, Va., stayed at the Veterans Affairs Center in Martinsburg, W.Va., during her 12-week class at James Rumsey.

Sarah, 24, of Hagerstown, who asked that her last name not be used, will drive long-haul for a company called Swift Transportation Inc. She'll start at Swift's Richmond, Va., office next week.

Ten- to 14-day trips, with two days off, appeal to her. "I think it's good for a young single person. That's heaven just to see the country," she said.

"I can't stand to sit behind a desk," she said. "I'm not a people person. I've always wanted to (drive) - and the money is good."

The women name luxuries now part of many road trips - cable TV, microwaves, e-mail, pets, friends.

"Trucking has changed a lot," Nesslerodt said. "It's much more family oriented than before. A lot of companies guarantee weekends at home. ... Obviously, if my family's not happy, then I'm not happy, and I'm not going to drive well."

The only man in the class is also the youngest student.

Michael L. Osterman, 21, of Martinsburg, worked in a factory for 2 1/2 years, but decided it wasn't for him. "I just like big rigs," he said.

He said he fell behind the rest of his class because he had trouble with his written general knowledge test. He eventually passed, and said he isn't giving up his quest for a commercial license. His classmates said he's a great driver.

"You've got to want it and not give up," Rocker said.

"We start from scratch," Barney explained. "No trucking experience."

First, students learn the parts of the tractor and trailer, and how to inspect them before a trip.

Next, shifting is explained. Barney's class learned to double-shift, in which the driver depresses the clutch when shifting to neutral and again when shifting into gear.

Students learn to couple the trailer to the tractor. They practice backing the tractor and trailer three different ways. They turn corners at various angles on a practice course at James Rumsey's campus on W.Va. 9, near Hedgesville.

After about five or six weeks, when they get their licenses, the students take to the road. Barney said they start with a 40-foot trailer and a single-axle tractor.

At the time of her recent test ride, Nesslerodt had advanced to a tandem-axle tractor with a 48-foot trailer. It's the same kind she'll drive for Bowman and the standard size on the highway, Barney said.

Empty, it weighs about 32,000 pounds. With a full load, it would weigh about 80,000 pounds, he said.

On the recent test ride, Nesslerodt started the truck, looking at the oil pressure and air pressure of her brakes. She checked her six mirrors.

In second gear, the truck began to roll.

When the engine dial hovered between 1,200 and 1,600 revolutions per minute, she shifted.

A few times, she misjudged her shifting and ground the gears as she calmly but quickly searched for the correct one. Barney acknowledged that it sometimes happens to him, too.

On that day, the roads were a minefield of potential disasters.

A muffler dropped from a passing car. A sedan cut in front of Nesslerodt. A hatchback scooted around and passed on the driver's side on an entrance ramp. Many drivers, including other truckers, failed to allow a safety cushion of space.

Nesslerodt noticed each near-miss as it began to happen.

"People do crazy things to avoid a truck," she said. "I'd rather follow a big truck than be dead."

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