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.

While good security measures can curtail the presence of prostitutes and related crime, they can’t address the other problem with commercial sex: sexually transmitted disease. Truckers, like prostitutes, often lack or disregard basic STD information. A study, “Highway Cowboys, Old Hands and Christian Truckers: Risk Behavior for Human Immunodeficiency Virus Among Long Haul Truckers in Florida,” reveals truckers’ attitudes about HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and the University of Florida assessed 71 male truckers in 1995 and 1996. The most sexually active group, “Highway Cowboys” (spending an average of 337 days a year on the road), included 20 of the 71 truckers. Six said they never used condoms; five used them occasionally or frequently.

The main factor truckers used to select a woman was her appearance, especially if she “looked” healthy, the study says. Researchers also found that most truckers believed that condoms cannot prevent HIV transmission, and that some truckers thought women could not transmit HIV to men – both fallacies.

Truckers are also deceiving themselves if they believe prostitution on the road carries no risk of violent crime. “They are in serious danger of being robbed, if not during the act itself, then after they pull out their wallets,” says nurse Sharon Mitchell, who has worked eight years in a truck stop clinic in South Jessup, Md. “I’d guess close to 100 percent of lot lizards are carrying a knife or pepper spray,” she says.

“We had to call a chopper for one guy who was found lying in the lot with his whole skull exposed. It took 140 stitches to put his scalp back together. He said he was with a lot lizard earlier but didn’t know what happened to cause this injury.”

A 46-year-old company driver who was robbed at truck stops in 1998 and 2001 says he sees little distinction between prostitution, drug dealing and robbery. “You don’t know if you wake up or roll your window down who’s going to be there with a gun or knock you in the head,” says the driver, who declined to give his name for publication.

Trucker Rich says thieves often use a prostitute knocking on the cab to determine if the truck is occupied. “Then she catalogs it for some of her thieving buddies,” he says. The thieves can immediately hit an empty truck; in other cases, they watch for the trucker to leave with a shower bag.

“We’ve encountered a handful of issues where the operator claims he was robbed at a truck stop, and after investigation we find out it was a prostitute,” says Randy Price, director of corporate security for Prime Inc. “She grabbed his wallet with his Comchek and took off on foot.” In many cases, the prostitute is particularly desperate for cash because she has a drug habit, say Price and others, and sometimes organized crime is involved.

The time spent with a prostitute can be just enough diversion for cargo theft to take place, says Price, who was named Security Professional of the Year 2001 by the American Trucking Associations. “What better way to get you off-guard as an operator than with your pants down around your ankles,” he asks. That’s one reason Prime addresses prostitution in its driver orientations. “We keep people aware that it’s more than 20 or 30 minutes of a good time; it has a seven-figure implication in some cases.”

And it’s not always a matter of thieves breaking into a trailer while a prostitute occupies the driver in the sleeper, says Gary Fitzsimmons, security director for Swift Transportation. “The prostitutes take them out partying, drinking, sometimes getting them on drugs, while someone’s ripping off the trailer,” he says.

Most truckers say they’d rather not be part of an environment where prostitution takes place. “A year ago in Ohio I saw one girl get in at least 12 trucks,” says Roger Bailey, an owner-operator leased to Boyd Bros. Transportation of Clayton, Ala. Parked at a truck stop in West Memphis, Ark., a crossroads long known for its prostitution problem, Bailey says he’s there only because he must deliver in Memphis, Tenn., the next morning. “These truck stops around the country need to get the drugs and prostitution out of them,” he says. “We need federal marshals to come in the truck stops and clean them out.”

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