We've come a long way

By Randy Grider
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Many veteran drivers harp back to the good ole days when they get together. You know, less traffic, more courtesy, and just plain simpler times. I miss those things, too.

Who wouldn’t trade a coast-to-coast run tomorrow for a time-machine trip back to yesteryear? Well, unless the time-machine used yesterday’s technology. It’s the one constant compliment that I hear about trucking in the present – the equipment is much better.

Each year when I interview members of our Great American Trucking Family, I hear how physically easier it is to drive a truck today. One member of this year’s family told me he hears newbie drivers talk about a truck being a rough ride. “They don’t know anything about a rough ride,” he said laughing.

Many of the drivers today remember trucking before power steering and air ride. They can tell you what it’s like to drive across the Southeast in the summer without air conditioning. They’ll quickly point out that you basically had to man-handle the truck and many times the cargo, too.

I remember driving my dad’s old White when he was trying to teach me to drive. By today’s standard’s it was like trying to wrestle a llama. My arms were worn out after a couple miles on the private back roads of the coal mine he was working at the time.

After high school I drove a few trucks – usually at least a decade old – until the late 1980s when I went away to college.

Away from trucking for more than 10 years, I was shocked when I drove the first truck after starting to work for Truckers News. It felt more like driving a luxury car than the old buggies I cut my teeth on. Cruise control, tilt-steering, automated transmissions, GPS – thank you, Mr. Engineer.

But where I think the greatest improvements have been made is not in maneuverability or driveability. It’s definitely in safety. The ability to stop a truck in the safest fashion is the most important aspect of trucking. If you can’t stop to avoid an accident all the other technologies we’ve achieved go out the window.

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Antilock braking systems have greatly reduced the number of jackknifing incidents. There are few things scarier, and sometimes deadlier, than a lock-up of wheel brakes. Once that happens you’re simply along for the ride.

Another technology that greatly helped safety is the engine retarder. My first revelation that trucking is a dangerous occupation occurred when my dad’s good friend was killed going off a steep mountain in North Alabama.

My dad was a couple of miles ahead of him when he heard his friend call on the CB that he had lost his brakes halfway down the three-lane highway. None of the trucks at the company my dad work for at that time had engine brakes. If you lost your brakes, you basically had to pray and try to ride it out.

My dad’s trucking and hunting buddy of many years anxiously asked my dad to block traffic at the bottom of the mountain just past a long curve marked the end of the 2,000-foot decent. “I’m in the left-hand lane. I’m using the entire road. If you can hold stop traffic I think I can make it,” were his final words. He died upon impact with a rock wall on that last curve.

Sadly, it took his death to justify the need for engine brakes on all trucks at my dad’s company. Too many times, it takes tragedy to spark innovations and implementation of safety advances.

A couple of safety advances that are quickly making inroads into trucking today are crash-avoid and anti-rollover systems. I’ve seen and been a part of tests for both systems and I must say they are impressive.

A trip down memory lane to trucking’s simpler times can be fun. It would more comfortable and safer, however, if you could do it in today’s equipment.

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