By Tony Rizzo
The road is long and the country is big.
And on any given day an estimated 3 million over-the-road truckers are traversing the nation’s highways.
When one of those truckers turns up missing, finding them can be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.
“It’s a challenge because of the nature of their job they could be just about anywhere,” said Norita Taylor, spokeswoman for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association.
That’s where the Missing Truck Driver Alert Network comes in.
Much like the Amber Alert system for missing children and the Silver Alert system for older adults, the network strives to quickly spread the word by Facebook and email whenever a driver is reported missing.
It happens more than most people realize, said Lisa Wells, one of the administrators of the network, which is based in Colorado.
The network averages two to three missing trucker reports every month, she said. So far this year, seven missing driver reports have been made.
She said that about half of the time, the drivers are found safe.
That was the case last Monday in northwest Missouri when a Texas driver’s truck was found abandoned outside of Lathrop. His wallet, cell phone and other personal items were found in the truck.
The network posted information about the driver and links to news stories about him.
The next day, he was found safe at a motel in Cameron, and the network updated its site with word that he was OK.
But in another local case broadcast by the network, the outcome was tragic.
Last October, an Arizona driver’s truck was found unoccupied in a parking lot near Shawnee Mission Parkway and Antioch Road in Merriam.
The whereabouts of 53-year-old Lawrence Muirhead remained a mystery until February, when his body was discovered inside a freezer in a garage behind a Kansas City, Kan., house.
Kansas City, Kan., police are continuing to investigate and said this week that no arrests have been made.
While authorities have not said whether they know why Muirhead’s truck was parked where it was found, trucking industry advocates say it could highlight one of the most serious problems affecting driver safety: The lack of safe parking.
“There is a severe shortage,” said Hope Rivenburg, the wife of a New York driver who was murdered in 2009. “It’s a huge problem that’s growing.”
Space at well-lighted truck stops and highway rest stops fills up quickly, and criminals perceive truck drivers as easy targets, she said.
Her husband, Jason Rivenburg, had parked his truck at an abandoned gas station in South Carolina when he was robbed of the $7 in his wallet and killed.
Since then, Hope Rivenburg has successfully pushed for federal legislation to address the truck parking issue. “Jason’s Law” has been adopted as part of federal highway legislation to provide increased safe parking opportunities for truckers.
As part of the effort, Rivenburg’s organization conducted a survey of about 4,000 drivers to determine which areas of the country have the greatest need. Missouri was one of 23 states identified as those in need of the most improvement.
The nationwide survey also found that 39 percent of the time drivers reported that it took them more than hour to find a place to park. And 88 percent of the drivers reported feeling unsafe at times while working during the past year.
Kari Fisher, the wife of a Colorado truck driver, started the Missing Trucker Driver Alert Network in February 2012 after the wife of a missing driver turned to social media to publicize his disappearance.
Fisher was not available to comment because she on the road, but Wells said Fisher realized it was a needed service.
Dawn Miller discovered that last Labor Day weekend when her truck driver brother-in-law, Maurice Weller, went missing. Family members of the Colorado-based driver discovered the network, which worked with the family throughout the ordeal.
“They did so much for our family,” she said. “They answered all of our questions.”
Another truck driver who saw information about Weller’s disappearance on the network spotted his truck about three weeks later at a truck stop in Tennessee.
Sadly, he was found dead of natural causes.
But for Miller, the work the network did for the family prompted her to join it as an administrator.
“It means the world to know that someone is there for you,” she said. “They were there for us from the start.”
Before the network, Taylor from the independent drivers association said, there was no good way for information about missing drivers to be disseminated before Fisher started the network.
“We have been very supportive of her and praise her in trying to do something to fill in that gap,” Taylor said.