Drivers' Ed

Dave Sinsley looks over a sample test under the watchful eye of instructor Ron Oross.

The students in Ron Oross’ morning truck driving class affectionately call him Mr. O.

The students, Dave Sinsley, 29, Dani Waitte, 25, and Tom Eyler, 34, appear ready and willing to navigate the twisting, rain-soaked roads around Pittsburgh under the watchful eye of Oross. There is an obvious camaraderie among the three students and their instructor. Oross has created a positive teaching and learning environment here in the parking lot of a deserted Sam’s Club, where the PIA Truck Driving Program has its skills course.

Oross himself graduated from a now-defunct truck driving school in 1979 and says he carried away many lessons about teaching from that experience. “I had one instructor who threatened to jump out of the truck when a guy missed a gear,” Oross says. “He did not inspire confidence.” Judging by the eagerness of this group, Oross conveys that necessary confidence to his students.

The ’96 Freightliner FLD hooked to an empty 48-foot van has had its bunk replaced with three seats complete with seat belts, and there is a brake pedal on the passenger side an instructor might use rather than flay his student with warnings of precipitous flight. Oross used it once all morning.

Eyler is first behind the wheel. He is a quiet man who has always wanted to truck. Like the others, he has been through 40 hours, or half of the classroom segment in preparation for taking the written CDL. In Pennsylvania, permits are required 30 days before taking the road test. A student must pass the written CDL to get his permit, which is good only for use in the presence of an instructor.

Unlike the others, Eyler has never driven a standard transmission, and downshifting is giving him some trouble. His cornering skills look good, and judging from his performance in the straight backing and alley dock, he has a sense of what the truck will do and how to handle it. But on the road Oross works with him constantly to help him understand the difference in rpm speeds at which he can find a gear.

At one point, when Eyler misses a gear and is looking for one, he over revs and loses even more ground to the hill, coming to a stop in the middle of the road. “Remember that when you lose it going up, you’re going to lose revs fast,” Oross tells Eyler. “You’ve got to judge road speed and match it to your rpms. More than likely you’ll find a gear more easily if you rev it up only slightly. Your road speed has dropped so far that to match it you have to be patient with the throttle.”

Patience is a word one might well apply to Oross’ teaching style. The road we travel is tough and would require concentration from any driver. For a steady hour he guides Eyler through long ascents, descents and one particularly difficult hairpin curve where Eyler does well managing the trailer but once again loses a gear and must look for another to ascend the immediately following grade. Eyler is frustrated, but he keeps trying. His attitude is good, and he does not force the gearshift into gear. After he takes a seat in the back, Eyler is quick to point out, “I need to work on downshifts.” Oross agrees and says when the downshifting smoothes out, everything else will fall into place.

Edward Horneyes, classroom instructor at PIA, explains the inner workings of a transmission to three students.

The truck proves to be a rough rider, and its brakes are touchy, making the 60 miles or so we travel less than comfortable no matter who is driving. But Waitte is obviously a quick study. He pops off the brakes after a coffee break and pulls out smoothly into traffic, shifting up and down without missing a gear. It is obvious that much of what a CDL instructor does in the truck is teach geartrain management. Space management and geartrain management are the two broad categories of skill. Oross tells me that each student gets 15 hours behind the wheel on the road. “Some people never pick it up, but this kid is a natural,” Oross says, referring to Waitte.

Oross says that not all training miles are run empty. “We pick up and deliver from a local food bank to give students a look at what it’s like to actually pull and deliver a load. But we don’t do it constantly. It takes too much time away from their time behind the wheel,” he says.

Sinsley takes the wheel next. He is a former warehouseman who decided to try his hand at driving a truck when his company went out of business. “I got to talk to a lot of drivers on the dock,” he says. “It seemed like a decent way to make a living.”

Sinsley also shows signs of being a good driver soon. But like his fellow classmates, he is not as aware of road signs as the instructor would like. Sinsley asks Oross which way to go at an intersection. “You tell me,” Oross replies. There is a 10-ton limit to the left and a 10-ton limit to the right, leaving only one choice. Sinsley has to look hard to figure it out.

Sinsley’s biggest problem is trying to force the lever into gear. Oross tells him to relax and let the rpms drop. “You’re shifting too fast,” he says more than once. All three take Oross’ comments well, responding with renewed effort to his requests. “Mr. O. is a good teacher,” Sinsley says. “He’s mellow, and he’s reasonable.” On this drive Oross’ commentary is accurate and simple, making the intense learning task easier.

It is still raining when we get back to the yard, but all three men take their turn in the skills. Oross, who is also the examiner for the state, says PIA teaches six skills in the yard: straight line backing, sight side and blind side parallel parking, serpentine backing, forward right hand turn, and left-sided alley dock. “Even though students are tested on only two skills, they have to be proficient in all six. We don’t tell them which two skills they will be tested on,” says Tom Radoycis, director of education. “Pennsylvania has also gone to a 12-point pretrip,” Oross says. “All six of our schools teach a 100-point pretrip, but as a third-party examiner, we are told by Pennsylvania to test on only 12 points. I would like to see the state go back to the 100-point pretrip.”

The classroom is a mile or so away, attached to the office. Edward Horneyes is teaching three other students, who are taking a test. He learned to drive in the Army and ran for U.S. Express, working there as a trainer as well before starting to teach for PIA. “We work with a number of carriers,” Horneyes says. “They are looking for graduates who have learned map reading and defensive driving skills. It’s not enough to be able to jam gears and back up. Our grads learn to stay out of trouble by learning map reading. We emphasize reading and understanding signage also. Missing a weight limit sign or not being able to interpret it can cause a driver and a company serious trouble.”

Dave Sinsley and Tom Eyler head out into the rain for their turn on the skills course.

PIA officials say classes generally have no more than eight students. Small class size is important in intense learning situations, making small classes a better opportunity for men and women who may have little or no experience with the trucking industry. Oross says schools have changed dramatically since the 1970s when he attended. Certainly class sizes seem to have dropped. Oross’ class had close to 80 students but had to learn the same skills and absorb the same amount of knowledge in the same one-month time frame. Students at PIA have the advantage of more one-on-one time with a professional instructor and more time spent in hands-on training.

According to the American Trucking Associations, there will be a need for 80,000 more truck drivers every year for the next 10 years. This means schools like PIA should have steady business. Paul Bulik, chief operating officer of PIA, believes the 80,000 estimate is low.
“Higher standards like the hazmat background checks going into affect in January will make entry into the industry more difficult,” Bulik says. “The driver shortage will increase as even more new federal standards are applied to drivers.”

The federal government also is looking at a national commercial driver’s license, national ID cards and a graduated CDL. “The graduated CDL will mean, for example, that it will take six months for an entry level driver to get a truck of his own,” Bulik says. “PIA has the philosophy that our graduates are not ready for first seat responsibility. We graduate our students with the idea they will attend a carrier’s finishing school. This is standard practice in truck driver education now.”

Bulik believes the implementation of more and higher standards for truck drivers will mean an upgrade in how the public sees the professional driver.

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