All Together Now

Ridealongs can mean family fun, but they carry an extra set of risks.

For some truckers, bringing family members along for the ride makes driving feel less like work and more like a vacation. And for the passengers, it’s not only a way to keep the family together, it’s a way to travel and see what the trucking life is really like.

But ridealong rules change from company to company, and even if you are following them, an accident can turn family fun into a nightmare.

“I like seeing the country,” says Debra Burton, 44, whose husband Donald, 48, hauls general freight for Contract Freighters, Inc. “I’ve always been kind of a history buff, and I like seeing things I’ve only read about in books.”

Debra and their Pomeranian, Marshall, ride along with Donald full time. He started trucking five years ago, after their two children were grown. Now they are living the dream they always talked about, riding around the United States together.

But it’s not always a perfect dream, Debra says.

“Learning to live together in the truck is tough,” she says. “I know we argued more in that first year in the truck than we had in 20 years of marriage.”

They share the small sleeper of a Kenworth T600; the bigger T2000 sleepers usually go to team drivers.

The couple usually gets home every three weeks. Until this year, they maintained their own house, and the kids or other relatives took care of it. Now they stay with their married daughter when they come home.

“The grandkids are always glad to see Grandma and Grandpa come home with some new toy,” Debra says.

CFI lets Debra ride along for free, but some companies require small monthly payments to help cover the additional insurance liability.

Arrow Trucking, a national general commodities hauler, charges $13.50 a month for rider privileges. “The extra pays for the insurance in case something happens,” says Arrow Orientation Coordinator Debbie Bell.

Arrow and CFI, along with most companies who allow passengers, require riders to sign a “hold harmless” agreement, waiving their rights to sue if something goes wrong.

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If anyone under 18 wants to ride along, both the driver and the non-driving parent have to sign and notarize the permission slip.

“It gives the kids the opportunity to see the United States with their parent over the summer,” Bell says. “A lot of these little kids love going on the trucks.”

When leased-operator David Hein of Good Thunder, Minn., wants to bring his wife or teenage daughter along on the road, he pays $13 a month at the Minnesota-based company where he works. “I get charged that whether she rides along the whole month or just to Minneapolis and back.”

Many companies restrict the rider policy to one passenger only, but at Hein’s company the $13 is good for one month of unlimited passengers riding in the truck. “But I don’t like having more than one most times,” he says.

Hein brings his wife, Debi, along three or four times a year, he says. They have friends all over the country, and they like to travel to visit them. “At least I can make some money while I do it,” he says. “Rather than jumping in an airplane or jumping in a pickup and driving all over the place.”

His wife has to stay home with their 17-year-old daughter most of the time, and she doesn’t like the road life as much as her husband does. “She says she couldn’t do it all the time like I do,” Hein says. “She gets tired of riding in the truck after about five days. That’s the main reason she doesn’t ride along more.”

Instead, Hein’s black lab, Hunter, keeps him company in the truck about half the time, he says.

At many companies, rider policies and pet policies go hand in paw. At Arrow, drivers pay a $500 deposit to bring their pets along for the ride. “Once the pet comes off the truck, the money is returned to them except $100,” Bell says.

The deposits are usually put in place to cover damage pets may cause to the trucks, not to discourage pet owners from bringing their beloved animals along.

“Through experience, we know what it costs on average to clean up a truck,” says CFI President Herb Schmidt. “It’s more costly to us. Soiled material, things chewed up, hair, smell. There are many of our drivers who cherish the companionship of a pet. We felt like, well, if they’re willing to be responsible for the pet financially, there’s no reason for us to keep them from having that.”

Risky business
While there are plenty of companies to choose from for drivers wanting to bring along their families, many companies don’t allow passengers at all.

“The company I’m going with has a no-rider policy. Not supposed to even have an animal, although they stated if I’m discreet about it he can go,” says Stephen Meyer of Lake City, Fla. He drives over-the-road for Jack B. Kelly, Inc., hauling cryogenics.

“The reason for no riders is not the trucking company’s decision as much as it is their customers,” he says. “Any type of distraction can cause a real safety hazard, so it’s simply prohibited by them. I can understand why. If someone’s kid took off running while product was being unloaded and distracted the workers, the results could be a disaster.”

Meyer says he doesn’t mind the no-rider policy because he has only ever taken very short trips with his family on board. “Trucks are too small for more than one, in my opinion, so it’s just more comfortable anyway,” he says.

Some companies are so concerned about not having passengers that they make special alterations to the truck to prevent them.

“My company orders trucks without passenger seats and installs a metal bracket with a fax machine where the seat should go,” says Joshua Sheehy of Loudon, N.H. He drives locally for R+L Carriers, a national less-than-truckload carrier. “When they need to do a new-hire road test, they take a driver’s seat out of another tractor and bolt it to the floor in place of the fax machine.”

The reason companies enforce no-rider policies is liability, says Connie Alexander, who owns Alexander Insurance Services, Ltd., an independent agency that represents several trucking industry insurance companies.

“While many trucking companies offer a rider policy as a means of being good to their drivers, they take on a big responsibility,” Alexander says. “I believe that there is no way to eliminate passengers entirely. Someone is going to take a spouse, child, etc. It cannot be absolutely enforced. But we must be aware of the potential risks, which could be catastrophic.”

Trucks are typically covered with $1 million of liability insurance, she says, but if you had an accident with passengers on board, your liability could easily exceed that.

“Passengers can increase your exposure double, triple or more. It all depends,” Alexander says. “I would think your family members and friends have an incalculable value to you personally.”

Alexander had a client in Milwaukee who took his sons, ages 6 and 10, on the road with him. He crested a hill and crashed into a farmer’s tractor that was moving slowly on the road in front of him. His 10-year-old son was killed in the collision, and both the farmer and the trucker’s ex-wife sued him.

Even company drivers can be held liable in civil court if the court and the circumstances are right. “Juries are very sympathetic to injured parties,” Alexander says. “It’s the only way we know how to make them whole. We try to ease the pain by giving them money.”

Even if the passengers sign a permission form waiving their rights to sue, it can be thrown out in court, she says.

“When you bring your spouse with you, if she has minor children and has signed a waiver, you can’t sign away her rights,” Alexander says. “The waiver does you absolutely no good. Those children still have to be provided for. Our courts are so liberal and so lenient and so anti-trucking that these things happen. There are a lot of drivers out there who think, ‘This can’t happen to me.’ You can’t guarantee someone else won’t do something stupid. You can’t factor in for the other guy.”

But companies that allow passengers to ride along say the risks are balanced by the rewards. Being able to bring their families or friends along for the trip can make drivers more satisfied in their jobs and might even help them be more alert behind the wheel, says CFI’s Schmidt.

“It helps if you’re driving in the middle of the night, and you have someone else to visit with,” Schmidt says. “From my perspective, yes, there’s a little bit of additional exposure any time you have an additional person in the truck, but there’s also additional benefit. As long as we don’t think there’s an increased hazard, we do our best to accommodate our drivers.”

Alexander recommends truckers really think before bringing along passengers, even if the company allows it.

“I understand wanting to be with your spouse, your girlfriend,” says Alexander, whose husband was an owner-operator for 40 years. “I used to enjoy going with my husband. I loved it. No phones, no doors, no cats, no kids. But the risk was there, and we both knew it.

“Passengers are a huge responsibility and one not to be taken lightly, in my opinion. The most precious cargo you will ever haul is your passenger.”

Growing up Trucking
A family makes their home on the road

When truckers Mark and Renee Taylor decided to get married eight years ago, she was a paralegal and he was a trucker. They knew they didn’t want to live a life seeing each other only every other weekend, so Renee got her CDL and joined him on the road.

“I had that adventurous spirit, and my dad was a trucker, so I got my CDL,” Renee says. “We worked hand in hand. I drove and I did as much as he did. We work well together, and it was our life.”

When their son Lee, now 6, came along, they had no thoughts about leaving the road life. They just brought little Lee along for the ride in their Freightliner Classic XL with a condo sleeper and two bunks. It was an experience all three family members cherish.

“It was wonderful. He was able to bond with his dad in a way a lot of kids don’t,” Renee says. “Mark, of course, had 100 percent opportunity to be involved in every facet of Lee’s life. He would give him his naps in the afternoon, and he would play. If we had a regular 9 to 5 job, he wouldn’t have the opportunity to do that. I think that has really made a difference in little Lee’s life having his dad around all the time.”

The Taylors homeschooled Lee on the road through pre-school and kindergarten. “The child has the most awesome sense of geography,” Renee says. They also brought along their two small dogs, a Miniature Pinscher and a Dachsund.

Of course, the road life wasn’t all rosy.

“You have fusses, and you never know how loud a sleeper curtain will slam until you get mad,” Renee says. “Living in that close of quarters, you don’t have that ability to separate. When one person is driving, the other person closes the sleeper curtain and you go away for a while.”

But for the most part, the Taylors’ life was cozy – until January 2004 when Mark chose to travel to Iraq as a civilian contractor. The Taylors sold their truck, and for 17 months, Mark delivered mostly mail in the war-torn country, with the help of a military escort.

Renee and Lee, now at home in Warren, Ark., also had to accept a big change in their lifestyle. Lee missed his father, but he also missed being out on the road and the weekly stops to get fresh strawberries on their runs to California.

“Lee and I had to adjust to being home all the time and Mark not being around,” Renee says. “I was so thrilled when we picked Mark up from the airport because now our life was back to normal. I don’t think you really adjust; you adapt, you make do. There are a lot of things you have to figure out. But I don’t think you ever really get used to it.”

Unlike many of the wives of civilians in Iraq, Renee had support from her trucking family at the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association and Trucking Bozo. “We all support each other; we’ve done it for years,” she says. “Being a trucker myself, it’s just a matter of maintaining with our groups of friends. I’m very blessed in that.”

Now Mark is back home in Warren, Ark., and the Taylors are planning to go back out on the road, this time as company drivers.

When they go, Lee will come with them. It’s good practice for the boy; he plans to become a trucker one day himself.

So You Want to Ride Along?
Ridealong policies vary from company to company, so if you want to bring along a friend, family member or pet now or in the future, you’ll need to ask about it up front.

“When he’s looking at any employer, that’s one of the first things he asks,” says Debra Burton, of her trucker husband Donald. “He’s worked for owner-operators before who said their insurance didn’t cover it, but they just turned a blind eye. They even gave me a permission slip to show the DOT.”

If passengers are allowed, you’ll need to find out what restrictions the company places on it. Some companies allow passengers only a certain number of times per year, some charge fees for passengers, some limit the number of passengers you can carry, some require doctor’s exams, and most require waivers absolving the company of responsibility if something goes wrong.

For example, at Contract Freighters, Inc., where Donald Burton drives, the company gives him an authorization for the person whose name is listed only. Other family members over age 12 can ride, but there is a fee for them and they have to be pre-authorized. Only one passenger is allowed at a time. Small dogs or cats are allowed if you pay a pet fee.

“We have a passenger pass procedure, so we get information on the passenger,” says CFI President Herb Schmidt. “Who’s the passenger? How long do they intend to have them riding? Just so we know who’s on the truck. We give them a form to carry with them in case they are questioned.”

Arrow Trucking has a similar policy. Riders are required to provide a copy of a photo ID and sign a waiver. Only immediate family members are allowed (grandparents can take grandchildren), and only children over 12 are allowed to ride, with the permission of both parents. Dogs and cats less than 50 pounds are allowed in the truck if the owner pays a $500 deposit.

Another restriction at Arrow and most companies, says Orientation Coordinator Debbie Bell, is that student drivers can’t bring along passengers. “The only restriction we have is the students have to wait till their probation period is out,” she says.

Even if you are an owner-operator, you should talk with the shippers and receivers to make sure they will allow non-drivers on their premises.

There’s usually no reason for the passenger to get out at a delivery or pickup, and for the passengers’ safety they probably shouldn’t exit the truck except for emergencies or quick visits to the restroom. “There’s usually no need for me to [get out],” Burton says. “Whenever I’ve had to – like for a restroom issue – it has never been a problem.

“Sometimes security will ask, ‘Who’s that?’ and they’ll write my name down, too. One place had a sign that said all ridealongs and pets should wait at the guard shack, but I just stayed in the passenger seat and no one said anything to me.”

Schmidt says most shippers and receivers CFI deals with have no policies restricting non-drivers. “Most shippers and receivers – I’d say 99.9 percent of them – have no problem with passengers as long as they have an authorized pass and have no problem with pets as long as the pet stays in the vehicle as long as it’s on their property,” he says. “There are a few exceptions, but they’re few and far between.”

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