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So… I got a new truck the other day. And of course, that means I’m all out-of-sorts. Even though my new ProStar looks exactly like my old one on the outside, the interior is slightly different. Just different enough in fact that I still bump my head on something or other at least once per day, usually more. I have the tender skull to prove it. But what am I rambling on about? Well, my new truck just about got me in a heap of trouble the first day I had it.
First, let me say that there is only one particular day that I don’t miss The Evil Overlord (the wife and ex-codriver) out here on the road. That day is any day I’m switching trucks. You see, when it’s just me I can get all my junk swapped over and put away within an hour or two. But toss the wench into the mix and you’re looking at a four or five-hour job and a couple of butt-chewings because I never could resist a few jabs about how much crap she always brought. Why I inflict this torture on myself, I have no idea.
So anyway, I’d already had a long day when I got to the yard to pick up my new truck. So after I got everything sitch-ee-ated, I was pooped. After a long, hot shower and some potato ham chowder, I was itching for the bunk. The load I was picking up was on the yard, so I went on over and backed under the trailer.
Now every driver will tell you that there is a ritualistic aspect of hooking up a trailer. Most drivers do it the exact same way every time. One of the worst things that can happen to me is when someone starts talking to me during this routine. Due to my complete inability to multitask, I inevitably screw something up and have to double-check everything. But this time, I got no such interruptions.
I followed my ritual to the letter. First, I hooked up the pigtail (the electrical cord) and then my air lines. Next, I stooped down to see if the fifth wheel pin was flush against the fifth wheel (see photos below). The next step is to jack up the landing gear on the trailer. Hopefully the previous driver wasn’t an idiot who had cranked it high enough for Babe the Big Blue Ox to get his big blue butt under it. The ritual is completed after I do my walk-around inspection, which involves checking all the lights and thumping all 18 tires to make sure they’re all aired up (the thump sounds different if the tire is low or flat).
Now normally, the last thing I do before I hit the road is a pull test to make sure the fifth wheel is latched. You do this by leaving your trailer brakes locked and releasing your tractor brakes. A quick tug will tell you whether your trailer is secured to the tractor. But I was tired that night and I went to bed since I wasn’t going anywhere until morning anyway. I’m sure you all can see where this is going.
Well, I slept like crap that night. Despite having a new truck with a bunk heater in it, I couldn’t use it that first night. The shop guy said the truck had been sitting for quite a while and the batteries wouldn’t likely be up to snuff until I ran the truck for a full day. It was going to get into the 30’s that night, so it was cold enough to idle the engine. But there was a problem with that too. You see, my company bases our governed speed on our idle time. Since I just got the truck, if I’d have idled the truck for 8 hours I would’ve been at 100% idle time and it would’ve taken me a heck of a lot longer than 8 hours of driving to get my idle time back down to an acceptable amount. I was having no part of that. I don’t like going even 2 mph slower than I can.
So out came the cowboy long johns. Yep; bright red and complete with buttons up the front and an escape hatch in the rear. Cuz you never know when you might need a surprise “escape.” I love the warmth of these things, but I’m awfully glad these trucks don’t come equipped with a full-length mirror. It couldn’t have been very pretty. Still, even with wool socks and an extra comforter, I felt like a popsicle and therefore, tossed and turned all night. Funny; the cold didn’t seem to bother me as much last year. I think I’m beginning to understand why old people’s houses always feel like a friggin’ sauna.
When I woke the next morning, I was colder than a skinny-dipping Eskimo. That prompted a couple of snooze buttons and deeper burrowing into the covers. When I was starting to push my delivery time, I finally crawled out of bed. The only thing worse than crawling out of warm blankets (well, semi-warm) is the half-a-second that comes between your long johns coming off and your fit-for-public-viewing clothes going on. I then realized I had forgotten to fuel the night before. So now I’m in a hurry. I start the truck, release both brakes, and slowly pull out. Just as I started to put my foot into the accelerator, something feels… off. And then, BAM! I was too late. Well, not completely. It could have been much worse.
Yep. Just like you suspected, the trailer wasn’t latched and I nearly dropped the trailer to the ground with the landing gear up. Luckily, my reflexes were sufficiently awake to stop soon enough that it only landed on my truck’s frame. After 10 minutes of hard cranking that had me breathing so hard I tasted blood (seriously), I noticed that the fifth wheel pin was still flush to the fifth wheel. Ahhhh… so that’s the problem. Apparently, new trucks come with the fifth wheel jaws closed (see photos below). Since the jaws normally stay open when not attached to a trailer, I hadn’t thought to check it before I backed under the trailer. And there it is, a trucker’s worst nemesis: complacency.
When you’ve been driving a truck for as long as I have, it’s bound to happen. You get cocky. You don’t watch the rear of your trailer during turns as much as you should. You don’t get out and look when you’re backing into a tight parking spot. After all, you’re “pretty sure” you’re going to miss that other truck’s mirror. You glance at the Twitter stream on your phone while driving more than you should. You might even find yourself thinking, “Yea, I’m driving, but that apple didn’t roll that far back into the bunk area. I’m pretty sure I can reach it without pulling over.” And obviously, you don’t check your fifth wheel properly.
C’mon now drivers, don’t leave me hanging like a married lady’s lingerie. Let’s be honest. How often have you had an accident or even a little mirror-tap oopsie right after you had a close call with another incident? Rarely, if ever. You’re on high alert after a close call. No, bad things happen when everything is going swell. When you’re feeling confident in your driving skills. When you’re feeling a tad bit holier-than-thou. When you’re feeling complacent.
I remember the first time I felt completely confident in my trucking skills. I don’t remember the exact day or even where I was, but I do remember the feeling. I was about 10 years into my career at the time. I pulled into a shipper and everything was tight. Really tight. I saw all the trucks that were already docked and I saw the one dock space left. Then I looked at the banged-up chain-link fence that had obviously taken it’s fair share of truck paint. I saw how tight it was going to be and for the first time I thought, “I got this. If those drivers can get in those docks, I know I can too.”
I remember that striking me as odd that it was the first time I’d felt that way in my driving career. In the past, I’d always break into a light sweat and think, “I’m never going to get into that spot!” So much so that to this day The Evil Overlord always teases me about saying stuff like, “I’m never going to get onto this busy road.” Or my most-used phrase ever, “We’re never going to find a parking space in here.” Somehow, I always managed to get the job done despite her constant ribbing, but it was never without much weeping and gnashing of teeth. Okay, maybe I didn’t weep, but I know I lost a lot of fingernails in the process and I may or may not have squirted in my shorts a few times.
So what can we drivers do to keep from getting complacent? Well, I hope you didn’t read all this hoping I’d solved the problem, because I haven’t. I’m clueless. If I knew how to keep complacency from creeping up me, I’d tell you. So instead I’m going to ask you. What do you do to keep from becoming complacent? Or do you not have it figured out either? The only way I seem to keep complacency at bay is for something bad to happen or at best, a near miss. Frankly, those are both crappy options.
Surely there is someone out there who has an answer. Every time I see a driver with a “3 million safe miles” sticker on his truck, I think, “How did they manage that? Are they just lucky or do they really stay focused on safety all day, every day, without any lapses in judgment?” I just don’t know how they do it. Maybe they’re robots. Or at the very least, cyborgs. Whatever they are, I’m not one of them. I guess I’m just too easily distra… SQUIRREL!
*So what about it guys and gals? How do you stay focused on the job? Or do you? How do you keep from getting complacent? You’re welcome to write in and admit you get distracted too. Even if you don’t, saying you do will help me feel better about myself. Leave your comments below.*