Driver of the Month

‘Man of action’

Marten driver Phil Johnson drives through the good and bad with a determined spirit

Phil Johnson

Expecting the unexpected has been a mantra for Marten driver Phil Johnson for the near 30 years he’s driven, and abiding by it has resulted in quite a few accolades, including several driver of the year awards and nominations, 3 million safe miles and a Truckload Carriers Association Highway Angel award, which he was given for saving a man’s life when he happened upon a car crash in Destin, Fla.

He’s also a self-proclaimed man of action, and “I’ve always looked at it that way,” he says, “I’m not a standby-er.” The Jackson, Ga., resident has more than one story to back it up, too. In addition to his Highway Angel actions, he saved a baby from a car in Michigan in which the mother was doing drugs in a parking lot.

When it comes to driving, though, “it’s all about anticipation,” Johnson says. “You have to anticipate what the other person’s going to do before they do it and not let folks get under your skin.”

The driving vet has run a dedicated load from Atlanta to Indianapolis for about 15 years hauling refrigerated goods to Kroger. He started driving when he joined the Marines in 1975, where he was offered the chance to haul jet fuel in Beaufort, S.C., then tactical equipment in Okinawa, Japan.

After leaving the service, he did landscape work briefly before going to driving school in Savannah, Ga. He had a few short stints with other carriers, including time hauling for Dixie Crystal sugar. He started driving for Marten in 1987, where he’s been since.

In 1999, though, his career and his personal life were struck a somber blow, when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer just weeks after the couple ordered a truck and planned on running an owner-operator team. She died in 2002, and Johnson decided to continue running as a company driver.

“It was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with,” he says, but he kept driving, dealing with the unexpected the same way he had before. “You can’t take anything for granted out here,” he says. “That’s just the nature of the job.”

Q & A

TN: What advice would you offer younger drivers?

Phil: The biggest piece of advice I give is do not get in a hurry. Take it slow. Turn the CB off and don’t worry about what anybody else is saying. When you’re backing up, don’t worry about how long it takes. When you bump the docks and set your brakes, you’ve done what you were supposed to, and it doesn’t matter how long it took. There’s a learning curve involved with this, and you just need to take your time until you’ve got a good handle on it.

TN: What’s the worst load you’ve ever carried?

Phil: Cowhides. They stunk so bad, and it’s all you could smell. They were going to a shipping container to be shipped overseas, and all they did was salt them — they weren’t refrigerated. That’s definitely the worst load I’ve hauled. It was back in the early ’80s, and I’d pick up a container at the port in Savannah and take it to Winn Dixie or some place, and I’d pick up a backhaul for export. That’s what they gave me one time — cowhides.

Editor’s note: Phil Johnson is a finalist in the 2012 Company Driver of the Year contest produced by Truckers News and the ­Truckload Carriers Association. The winner, will be announced at TCA’s annual convention March 3-6, 2013, in Las Vegas.

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