By Rob Wile
Connecticut truck driver Paul Brandon has never hauled to Tucson, Tucumcari, or Tonopah.
But over the course of his 34-year career in the industry, he has, as the song goes, driven nearly every kind of rig that’s ever been made. And over 1.1 million miles, according to Brandon’s employer Fedex Brandon, has never had an accident.
This is one of the reasons the 55-year-old father of two just earned the title as one of the country’s greatest truck drivers at the annual National Truck Driving Championships, sponsored by the American Trucking Association.
Brandon won in the contest’s 48-foot flatbed division, but one could argue he’s actually No.1 in the country. Other drivers, including this year’s ATA Grand Champion, have racked up more professional miles over their career without an accident. But to qualify, Brandon, who drives for FedEx, also had to maintain a clean record in his personal driving. That includes accidents in which he wasn’t at fault. Brandon’s 34 years as a driver best the grand champion’s 28.
How is a record like that even possible when, as Brandon recently asserted to Business Insider, truck drivers make more decisions in a minute than airline pilots?
There’s no trick, he said.
“I keep my eyes on the road and my hands on the wheel and I pay attention,” he said. “It’s a constant vigilance at all times — there’s no taking your eyes off the road, no taking your hands of the wheel, every minute you’re sitting there driving down the road, whenever you’re stopped, don’t be fiddling with the radio at a traffic light.”
“People have hobbies — my passion is truck-driving championships,” he told Business Insider recently. “Saturdays and Sundays I go down to the yard [to train]. It can be a long summer, when my wife asks me to fix the kitchen sink and I’m still washing the truck trailer or painting the wheels. But I manage to find time.”
The competition sounds like something that could easily get picked up by ESPN 2. The skills course tests various forms of precision driving including braking, parking, and backing, all up against the clock.
There is also a written test that covers everything from safety to hazardous materials to first aid, and a pretrip course where drivers must root out defects planted by course administrators. Brandon says he started practicing in March, and his kids often found him asleep slumped over a book.
Brandon’s career took a relatively conventional course, at least as far as his generation goes. He grew up liking big machines, and thought about becoming a civil engineer. After some schooling, he worked for as a garbage hauler before meeting someone in the trucking industry who agreed to take him under his wing. That was the extent of his formal training.
“I’ve done everything from drive dumpsters to flatbeds to liquid tankers, hauled frozen foods, just about everything at one time or another,” he said.
He’s been on flatbeds for the past 14 years, running local pick-up and delivery routes in and around Connecticut. He says they’re unique among rigs for the amount of manual labor they require outside of driving.
“You have to chain stuff down, secure it, tarp it, watch it,” he said.
These requirements have improved safety records but have complicated the nation’s mounting truck-driver shortage. We’ve previously discussed some of the perverse economic incentives that have led to the problem. Brandon insists the problem is cyclical and that trucking firms have already begun making increasing incentives to attract more drivers.
“Companies are coming a long way with trying to give time off from work for drivers to be with their families and keep them rested, the pay packages are coming up to attract a lot of good people to industry,” he said. “The question is can we keep pace with the growth?”
He said he’s not concerned about drivers being able to match his safety record, thanks to the proliferation of driver-aiding technology.
“When I first started driving, if you had a spot mirror on the right side of a truck … now they have lane departure systems, stability-control systems, forward Vorad [Vehicle Onboard Radar] systems, cruise control, the technology they have is quite amazing. And I think they’ll be able to keep making it safer and drivers of today will be able to carry it on.”
>The prize for first place in Pittsburgh is $1,000, a sum that pales against the thrill of putting on the gold belt buckle first-place finishers also receive.
“There are only nine people in the country this year that are going to get a gold belt buckle,” he said. “When you win a national title and get that gold belt buckle, you become one of the best of the best.”
Brandon says that after conquering flatbeds he’s moving on to tankers. While retirement has crept into his psyche it is not an imminent threat — especially since he is still not technically a grand champion.
“Once you get to a certain level, you want to get to the next level, then you want to get to another,” he said.