Frederick News-Post: Sharing the road with the big guys

I was riding with the best. Bob Weller, 67, of Monrovia, a tank-truck driver for Hahn Transportation in New Market for 42 years, is the 2014-2015 National Tank Truck Carriers’ Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year. He was named Maryland Motor Truck Association Driver of the Year in 2012, and recently completed 4 million miles of accident-free driving.

All those qualifications helped ease my concern about sitting in the front of a 40-ton tractor-trailer on April 7 carrying 8,000 gallons of jet fuel from a tank farm in northern Virginia to Frederick Municipal Airport. Hauling milk or mattresses might also have worked, but you can’t beat going with an experienced, accident-free driver, regardless of the load.

Weller is tall, solidly built, scholarly-looking, with a bushy white mustache, and the ideal road guide. Anyone else would have cracked me on the side of the head with a lug wrench after my 120th question, but he’s quiet, thoughtful and patient.

What got me thinking about those trucks that are our lifeline to most everything we need was a Feb. 19 tractor-trailer crash on the Capital Beltway. The driver, 47-year-old Dennis Frampton of Halethorpe, in Maryland, was killed, and both sides of the Beltway were blocked for hours. TV news coverage of the single-vehicle accident included interviews with commuters annoyed at the inconvenience, but not as concerned about the driver.

Frampton was more than an annoyance. According to one news report, he was married for 30 years, had two adult children, was active in his community, including as a youth sports coach, and had lots of friends — not unlike many of the other commuters in their smaller vehicles.

I wanted to see what those truck drivers deal with in Beltway traffic and how we can safely share the road with them. Thanks to Louis Campion, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association in Baltimore, and Barbara Windsor, president and CEO of Hahn Transportation, I got my chance.

Weller already had a two-hour traffic tie-up on a morning trip along the Baltimore Beltway. Our early afternoon trip from New Market to northern Virginia, down I-270 and I-495, was easier, but not traffic-free. The rig, including a 2015-model, 425-horsepower Mack tractor, is a hefty 14 tons, even with the trailer empty. Those drivers who cut in front of us, reducing the truck’s stopping distance, weren’t being smart.

With all that was going on, actions that would have had me breaking out the bad words, Weller never once ranted about the traffic. “It goes with the job,” he said. “You’re never going to get rid of the traffic. If you don’t like traffic, don’t get in the trucking industry.”

Following too close ranks up there with cutting in as a safety hazard. “If I can’t see you in my mirrors, you’re too close,” Weller said. “In bad weather, use your headlights.” Then, there’s what he calls the big thing — paying attention, including not using a cellphone.

You can add to that making fewer lane changes and having respect for other drivers. “It doesn’t cost you anything to be courteous,” Weller said. “It’s not costing you one penny.”

You know the one about being careful what you wish for? Well, I got my wish to experience rush-hour traffic in a tractor-trailer on the way back from Newington in northern Virginia to Frederick. You’re right, it’s not much fun for any driver, but you don’t want to get stuck in stop-and-go traffic, squeezing by two minor crashes and dealing with occasional rain while driving a tractor-trailer.

But Weller maintained the same composure on the return 60-mile, 2½-hour trip as he did earlier, even getting a chuckle out of reckless drivers who couldn’t decide what lane they liked best. “As you can see, they don’t believe in turn signals,” was his observation. “I guess that little lever is hard to pull down.”

The word of the day was “patience.” “As a driver, is it worth getting upset, winding up upside down in a ditch or hurting somebody?” Weller said. “If I pull back into the yard and haven’t had a problem, that’s a great day.”

Sharing the road with big trucks won’t change anytime soon. But at least for me, keeping Weller’s tips in mind to pay attention, be courteous and, most of all, have patience, should help make that sharing safer.

Link: Frederick News-Post

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