When Trouble Knocks

| September 03, 2002

Prostitution on the road poses a health threat to some and a safety threat to all. In spite of increased cleanup efforts, problems persist.

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It gets lonely on the road. Away from home for days or weeks at a time, some truckers cannot resist the temptation for cheap, easy sex when a woman bangs on the cab late at night. Eric Hearns, who drives for Phillip and Sons, an owner-operator fleet in Jackson, Miss., tries to steer clear of such activity. “Places I know it’s going on, I don’t even stop,” he says. In some cities, such as Dallas or Atlanta, Hearns says he’s received as many as five solicitations in one night from someone knocking on his cab.

Most truckers share that attitude. Those who don’t risk getting a sexually transmitted disease and passing it on to their wives or partners. And, by sustaining the demand for prostitutes, many of whom need the cash to feed drug habits, they put all truckers at risk for crime.

“If you park in the back of a truck stop, there are a lot of things that go on – not just prostitution,” says Jim Rich, who drives for J.B. Hunt. “Truckers get knocked in the head, dope – all that. It’s guys putting themselves into harm’s way.”

On the positive side, some say prostitution isn’t the problem it used to be and that smart truckers learn which areas or locations to avoid. One truck stop in Ontario, Calif. – one of the most oft-cited areas for truck stop vice – has been “cleaned up quite a bit,” says Doug Young, who has worked there seven years as a Transport for Christ chaplain.

“Prostitution has really been curtailed at just about all truck stops and rest areas,” says Carey Bolyard, an owner-operator based in Grafton, W.V. “It’s declining somewhat,” says owner-operator Charles Reed, who says he’s been bothered by prostitutes selling drugs. “But it kind of went into other areas of the country, like smaller urban areas.”

Truck stops have taken a much tougher stance in recent years, discouraging prostitution and other crime by hiring guards, increasing lighting and putting up fencing, says Lisa Mullings, spokeswoman for NATSO, the trade association of truck stop and travel plaza operators. Petro, for example, encloses many of its lots with barbed-wire-topped fence, admitting trucks through a manned security gate. Also, Mullings says, the increase in team and solo female drivers has prompted many truck stops to enhance security.

Rest areas, too, get their share of problems – and enforcement. “We’ve had truck drivers call us because people were knocking on their door at 3 or 4 in the morning wanting to provide sexual favors for them,” says Marvin McCracken, sheriff of Murray County, Okla., of the rest area off I-35 between Exits 46 and 49. “Lots of times if we can prove it, we arrest them for lewd and indecent acts,” he says. “Our judge is real good about fining the daylights out of them.”

Nevertheless, it’s difficult for even ambitious security efforts to eliminate lot lizards, as the prostitutes are called. Sting operations or police sweeps are only temporary deterrents. Security fences at truck stops can’t prevent women from reaching the lot through the main building or riding in with a trucker solicited off-premises. Private security guards have no right to detain someone until police arrive.

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