Friday, December 3, 2010

Winter driving from a straw hat driver’s point of view

It’s amazing how I’ve looked at trucking in winter conditions the past 10 years or so, as opposed to 30 or 40 years ago. I can remember times when I was home for the weekend and snowstorms moved in and I couldn’t wait till it was time to go. Just so you know, any kind of random testing hadn’t been thought of yet, but I would have passed.

One time on a union job with a private carrier, my boss said he wasn’t forcing me out, but would I please try to get an oversize load of long span trusses, 100-footers, up to our customer in Flint, MI? It was 300 miles. The company was late getting them built and delivered. Read that: “Get the load off the yard; now it’s the driver’s fault it’s late.”

The problem was, although it was dry and dusty at time, the TV and radio stations were telling people to get food, fuel and meds for four days and get home because a big one is on the way.

Me and the boss knew I had little chance of making it. The Great Blizzard of ‘78 was just 12 hours out, and I was driving right into it. Hey, I was guaranteed eight hours a day and a motel if I needed it, even though we had sleepers. Sounded like an adventure to me, and it was. That was 32 years ago. Even back then I at least had enough sense to quit early and get a motel while I could.

I look up to those who run the Northwest in the winter. They got more sand than I do or ever had. I have a now-retired friend who ran west out of Denver on I-70 (my worst nightmare in the winter). With all the storms, road shutdowns, hanging iron – maybe several times a trip – all I ever heard him complain about was the “slat rats” in their four-wheelers, coming and going to the ski resorts around Vail and Aspen, etc.

Me, I carried chains to be legal out there, but I put them on once, didn’t like the experience. So, on my last truck, they hung neatly in their racks for 14 years. I looked the part but didn’t play it, which was fairly easy as an owner-operator the last 25 years. I stayed south in the winter and loved running the Northwest in the summer.

Call me a wimp or a straw-hat driver; that’s fine. Somewhere along the line I lost my nerve. The last few years I got to the point I couldn’t stand the least little bit of snow or icy roads. Several reasons I guess. Mainly it was everyone was going faster than me, often as not, keeping me in whiteout conditions as they blew by me. Assuming everybody is following the first rule of inclement weather driving: “Only go as fast as you feel comfortable” – the gap just got too wide.

Comfortable to me means sitting back in my leather captain’s chair and taking it easy. To some others it must mean being hyped up, on the edge of your seat gassing on it and yakking on the CB about that old geezer they just passed.

If I was in charge, I would change two things. The western states seem to shut the roads down when they see it’s going to be ugly and, when it’s the right time, get the crews out to do their thing. I think the eastern states refuse to close the roads until wrecks literally force them to do so. I’d change that.

The other thing, and of course the biggie, slow down.

But don’t listen to me. I’m the guy in the straw ball cap and bowling shirt, hoping one of those Mojave sand storms don’t kick up. If it does, I’ll park, plug in a movie, and see what’s in the blizzard bag that looks good.