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Long-haul truck drivers adapt to lonely times

May 05, 2007|By PEPPER BALLARD

Books on tape, cell phones, televisions and training CDs are some of the ways local long-haul truck drivers beat loneliness while traveling alone on the open road.

"In orientation, especially with new drivers, we address that (loneliness) is something that they need to deal with," said Linda Baer, director of human resources for D.M. Bowman.

Typically, the company's long-haul drivers leave Sunday and return home either late Friday or early Saturday, Baer said.

Some retired and current truck drivers interviewed for this story said they don't think loneliness is much of a deterrent for those considering a career in the industry, which is experiencing a driver shortage.

"A driver has to be able to control his own environment," said Danny Martinez, lead instructor for Hagerstown Community College's Commercial Vehicle Transportation Program and a D.M. Bowman driver.

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"Some people can be lonely in a crowded room," added Ron Chambers, 71, a truck driving instructor and retired driver.

D.M. Bowman gives a cell phone to each of its drivers to help keep them connected with family and friends. Baer also said drivers seem to adjust to a more solo life after they have completed training and have spent between four and six weeks "side by side" with an experienced driver.

Improved technology and equipment have made life on the road a little easier for long-haul truck drivers, the HCC driving instructors said.

Keeping in touch

Instructor Jim Coover drove tractor-trailers for more than 50 years before taking the teaching job through HCC. When he was on the road, he made very few calls home because those were the days before cell phones. Truck stops were few and far between. When he took those trips, there also was no FM radio and no power steering.

Coover's late wife of 27 years, Ida Coover, raised their son, who now is 32, while juggling doctor's appointments, their son's schoolwork and household tasks during the week. Coover, who recently has remarried, said he believes a "good mate" is the key to a successful career in the industry and a happy family at home.

There were "rough" trips, though, and Coover said he didn't always get to spend 10 hours on the weekends with his family.

On those shorter visits, Coover said, "You spend all the time you can with them."

"You learn to appreciate the time you have with them," said Martinez, who's been in the industry for 14 years.

Martinez, 38, said laptop computers now enable truck drivers to communicate with family more often and in different ways. He said that while he was on the road for long trips, it was not unusual for him to check the homework of one of his three children from a distant state.

Most truck stops have Internet access, Baer said. She said the company offers its training CDs to drivers who want them. In the past few years, D.M. Bowman has offered books on tape through lending libraries at each of its facilities, Baer said.

"There's a lot more going on now," Coover said. "Trucks are better. There are more truck stops."

Drivers are not completely alone on the road, either. GPS tracking devices that are attached to most tractors keep drivers in touch with their companies and help their companies keep tabs on them, Martinez said.

"Some companies can monitor the speed," he said.

Messages from home or work are forwarded to a computer screen in the tractor that beeps when there's a message, he said.

Drivers must pull off the road to check those messages, he added.

Incentive to retain drivers

Even with the newer equipment - converters that allow drivers to install everything from refrigerators to DVD players in their cabs - safety remains the most important part of a truck driver's life, Martinez said.

"If you're on the road, you're doing nothing but concentrating on that road," Martinez said.

"With all of the traffic, you don't have much time to do anything else," Coover added.

Still, some companies add perks to keep drivers from getting bored.

Martin Storage Company/Allied Van Lines offers unlimited cell phone calls to its three long-haul drivers, company President Bob Dooley said.

Generally, D.M. Bowman does not see many drivers who have problems while out on the road alone, Baer said.

"If we're aware that something's going on, we meet them one on one," Baer said. "A lot of people that come in with experience, they're used to it."

Dooley said his three long-haul drivers have been with the company for a while, and none of the drivers have had any issues arise from their solo experience.

He said any truck driver having problems could check to see if counseling is covered in their health plan.

Martinez said companies are starting to offer more incentives to help retain drivers.

"Most of the trucking companies are trying to get more predictability in their schedules," Martinez said.

Instructor Terry Carter, 52, who is a retired driver, said he relays a lot of his experience on the road to the prospective drivers he teaches.

"I tell them, these (commercial driver's licenses) are the next best thing to a college education," he said.

He added later, "One hundred years from now, you will not see a robot driving a truck down the road."

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