April cover story: Risky Business

Carolyn Magner | April 13, 2011

Minimize your chances of becoming a victim of crime on the road

It was still dark outside the morning of Feb.17, when Truman Lee Smith arrived at the food warehouse in East St. Louis for a delivery.

He was at least an hour-and-a-half early, and reports say he exited his truck to push the gate buzzer. That’s when a gunman shot the former Marine, who served in Operation Desert Storm, in the chest in an apparent robbery attempt in front of the Fresh Warehousing building.

Police responded to a 911 call and arrived shortly before 6 a.m. to find the trucker lying next to his truck. Smith, from Irondale, Mo., a divorced father of three children and three stepchildren, died later at the hospital. He drove for E&K Truck Services based in St. Clair, Mo., and had been trucking for seven years. St. Louis Police Detective Orlando Ward was one of the first responders. “Here you have a guy who served his country in a war and dies in such a senseless way,” Ward says. “He was a true victim, and we are pulling out all the stops to find his murderer.” Ward interviewed truckers at area truckstops about the crime. “Everyone I talked to said they were extremely upset to hear about the murder. They felt like they had lost one of their own.”

Internet message boards filled with notes of support for his family and grief over the senseless death. One site, DriversAlike.net, encouraged drivers to sign Smith’s guestbook and to read the attacked truckers section, a collection of news reports of violence against truckers around the country. Long-haul trucker Lee and his wife, Danielle [who requested their last name not be used], run the site and say their mission is to raise public awareness of the safety issues faced by their fellow drivers. They are passionate supporters of the passage of Jason’s Law, pending legislation to allocate funds for more safe parking and rest areas, result of another trucker tragically killed on the job. Two years ago, Jason Rivenburg, 35, of Fultonham, N.Y., like Smith, arrived early at the receiver’s. He had to park and wait at a nearby abandoned gas station, where he was shot and killed by Willie Pelzer for the $7 he had on him. He left behind his wife, Hope, and three small children.

The FBI’s preliminary annual crime statistics for 2010 show violent crime in the United States decreased by 6.2 percent compared to 2009, but nobody tracks crimes specifically against truckers. While truckers like Smith and Rivenburg likely never had a chance, security experts say you can minimize your risk for becoming a crime victim on the job.

“The shortage of safe parking is a concern we hope will be rectified with the passing of Jason’s Law.”

— Norita Taylor, spokesperson for the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association

Be alert

Security experts believe a heightened sense of awareness of your surroundings is your most effective weapon against an attack. Crimes against truckers are most likely to occur during transitions. Be aware of everything around you, including the reputation of the area where you are stopping.

“Nothing beats being aware of your surroundings,” Ward says. “You should consider every stop a potentially hazardous situation. You never know when you are being watched. In most cases, the criminal knows the area better than you do. He knows exactly when you are vulnerable. Never let your guard down, ever.”

Always be aware of your surroundings when entering and exiting your truck.

Sandy Long, a driver for Weston Transportation and the author of the book Street Smarts: A Guide for a Truck Driver’s Personal Safety, says many new drivers are woefully underprepared for the personal safety risks that come with the job. She adds trucking can be compared to a combat zone. “If you don’t have natural street smarts, you need to get them,” she says.

Randy Vruwink, a trucker for 30 years, got a street lesson in September 2010. It was 9:30 p.m. when Vruwink pulled into a truckstop in Levo Junction, Ky., and did a post-trip inspection. He was checking the lock on his trailer when he was grabbed from behind, a knife jammed against his throat. The assailant demanded his cash and wallet. Vruwink didn’t have his wallet on him, but he gave up the $50 in his pocket. “I’ll get my wallet out of the cab,” he offered, but the thief snatched the cash and ran, disappearing into the rows of parked semis. In shock, heart pounding and adrenaline rushing, Vruwink called the police. When he gave his report, he found out there had been three other recent robberies in the area.

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