By: Paul S. Cilwa Viewed: 1/17/2018
Topics/Keywords: #18-Wheeler #BigRigs #Schneider #TruckDriver #TruckDriving Page Views: 686
An entry from Alternate Roads: Paul S. Cilwa's Truck Drivin' Journal

Monday, August 24, 2003

Awakening at 6:30 am, it was easy for me to get my load to the consignee on time. It was an entire trailer full of tires, but fortunately I didn't have to unload them—the consignee had already arranged for lumpers to do that, which allowed me to go back to sleep while it happened. Usually I have to get permission to use lumpers; but the "special instructions" entry on my work assignment said that Michelin, the shipper, would pay for them. So, all I had to do was get a ComCheck number from Debbie for the $80 the lumpers requested.

Debbie didn't answer the phone when I called; I got another dispatcher but that was all right. I got the number and made out the check. I then sent the message that requests an authorization number. Before expenses over $15 can be submitted on an expense form, an authorization number is required.

Unfortunately, unloading the trailer was not the lumpers' only task for the morning, nor their first priority. It seems the "lumpers" were also regular employees. This was supposed to be a two-hour unload, but three hours later it was still being half-heartedly attended to. I sent the appropriate messages and waited. Finally, at 11:30, I gave the ComCheck to the lead lumper and was able to leave.

Meanwhile my lead dispatcher, Yancy, trying to get my "utilization" up, had gotten me three assignments. There was a problem, though. (Isn't there always?) It was a very tight schedule, which would have been a challenge to meet if the unload had proceeded in a timely manner—doable, but a challenge. However, as time passed and I couldn't leave, it became more and more clear that this next load would probably not get an on-time delivery.

As I'm supposed to, I sent a warning message to Debbie, my regular dispatcher. Instead of accepting my warning that the load might be late, she tried to argue with me regarding the number of hours it would take.

The assignment I'd received went like this: I was to take the empty trailer I would have when they were done unloading the tires, and drop it at Kraft foods, whose facility was less than five miles away (or, as I would be paid, "0 miles"). I was then to bobtail across town and pick up a different empty at a facility there. Then I could do my actual assignment, which was to take that empty to the big Sears distribution center in Delano and trade it for a loaded trailer that was going to—guess where?—Phoenix.

Now, adding up the actual miles to be covered and dividing by 50, as Debbie was doing, showed I could make the trip and deliver on time. What this formula does not account for, is the time it takes to drop even an empty trailer, or to pick up one. I can't just press a button and have the trailer fall off my truck. I have to negotiate with the yard security guard, find an appropriate spot to place the empty, back into the spot, crank down the landing gear, pull the fifth-wheel release pin, and remove the electrical cable and air hoses from their receptacles, before gently pulling away. Schneider guesses this takes about 15 minutes, but in most cases 30 minutes is a better estimate.

I spent 45 minutes doing this at Kraft. Most of the time was spent waiting in line—mine was the fifth truck from the gate when I arrived.

When I couldn't explain this to Debbie, I got a message from Yancy to call him, which I did. "She's at it again," I growled when he picked up.

"Talk to me," he commanded. I explained the situation to him, and he replied, "I hear that you are worried there won't be enough time for this load to make it. That there is no room for any mistakes. We'll continue to monitor the situation."

"Thanks you," I sighed in relief. "That's all I wanted to hear."

So, finally, I was bobtailed and able to head for the facility on the other side of Fresno for the empty. As I drove, I spotted a McDonald's at the side of the road. I almost didn't stop; but then, I thought, I'm going to be pulling a trailer, soon, and won't have as many lunch choices as I do now. And I'll be starving. So I pulled into their parking lot, ran in, received a small cheeseburger to go, and had it swallowed before I got back into my truck. Not good for the digestion, I thought. I was going to have to make an effort to take longer to eat. But I really didn't have time to dawdle over my meal, not if I wanted to get that load to Phoenix by tomorrow morning.

I got back into the truck and returned to my northward route on Chestnut. As I monitored the traffic along the way, I noted a small white car pulling out of a strip mall and behind me. Eventually I got to Dakota Avenue, the cross street onto which I was to make my turn. I snapped on the turn signal, and got into my four-foot-from-the-curb turning position. (I may have been a little closer.) The traffic light at that intersection had turned red, and cross traffic kept me from moving for a few seconds. But, soon, the light turned green and I let out the clutch, gently, into fourth gear. (An empty bobtailed truck can easily start off in fourth gear.) I began my turn…

Suddenly, in the convex hood-mounted mirror, I spotted something unbelievable. The white car had come from behind me, and was accelerating directly into my path! Stopping made no sense; and I knew I couldn't accelerate fast enough to get out of its way. The only other option was to steer to the left, but motion on the right side made me think a car might be in that lane as well. And, in any case, there wasn't time. The white car, having slid past the pole holding up the street sign, made a sharp right turn but it was too late. I heard the sound of a vehicle contacting my truck.

Did it hit me? I wondered, even as I knew it must have. The white car completed the turn, and stopped at the curb. A blue car pulled in ahead of it and stopped as well. I parked behind it. A man got out of the blue car and talked with the driver of the white car. Great, I thought. A lawyer here already—his lucky day. But he left the other driver almost immediately and approached me. I opened my window.

"Get your pen and a piece of paper," he commanded. "You're going to want my number."

"Okay," I agreed, thinking I should perhaps advise him that Schneider already had dozens of lawyers on its payroll.

He gave me his name and number, and then added, "I saw your turn signal indicating a right-hand turn, and then you made it. I saw her dart out from behind you and try to beat you around the corner." This was phrased very precisely, as if he were already on the witness stand. Then he added, more conversationally, "I don't know what she was thinking! There was no way she could fit between you and the curb."

And that was it. He wasn't a lawyer, after all; or, if he was, he wasn't trying to drum up business. He was just a good citizen, offering to be my witness if I needed one. I thanked him. As he returned to his car, I got my cell phone and dialed Debbie, telling her what had happened so far. She quickly connected me with Accidents, the Schneider department in Green Bay that handles these things. I kept the phone with me as I hopped out of the truck.

"Are you all right?" I asked the driver, a pretty young woman of 19 or 20. She didn't look hurt, just embarrassed.

"Yes," she said ruefully. "I honestly didn't see your turn signal."

"You also forgot about the not-passing-a-truck-on-the-right thing," I pointed out.

"I know. I should have known better; my daddy's a truck driver." I wondered if her daddy had also just bought her the Nissan Altima she was driving. It looked new, except for the paint scratch on her rear fender.

"It looks like you got off pretty easily," I said, surveying the damage. I grabbed my accident camera, given to all Schneider drivers, and started snapping photos of everything—her car, her, the intersection, and, of course, my truck.

I had never really examined the passenger side of the Richard Gear before. Oh, sure, doing pre-trip inspections I had examined it closely to ensure the door closed tightly, the windows and mirrors weren't cracked, and so on. But I had never really looked at the passenger step on the skirting that covers the right fuel tank. It was wrinkled; clearly something had contacted it at some time. But the damage did not look recent. In fact, I couldn't spot any place where there seemed to be recent damage.

And the girl's fender was lightly scraped, not bent or torn. She had merely kissed the truck in her insane rush to get…wherever.

The accident claims person on the phone spoke briefly to the young lady, Ninette, and then back to me. They were happy that I had taken the pictures. They had the phone number of the witness, and the information on the young lady; I could go. "If we need any more information from you," the woman said, "we'll contact you again, within 48 hours." She asked me to pass that information on to Ninette, as well.

Now, all of this took place in just a few minutes, certainly fewer than ten and, I think, fewer than eight. That would explain why it isn't on my log. Accidents, of course, should certainly be marked in a driver's log book. That I didn't do it bespeaks how rattled I was at this incident, though at the time I felt pretty calm and in control.

Could I have prevented it? That was the question that haunted me as I completed my journey down Dakota to the facility that held the empty trailer I needed. Schneider claims that all accidents are preventable. Yet they tell me about a suicidal ex-driver who targeted a Schneider truck, and dove to his death in front of one when it came along. He'd probably gotten the kind of miles I'm getting, was my thought when I first heard the story. While his death may have been prevented by therapy or a watchful family, I didn't see how the driver of that truck could have done anything to stop it. The suicide had literally hurled himself in front of the truck, waiting until he knew, as a professional driver himself, that the driver would not be able to dodge him.

This girl had also hurled her car into a direct path with my truck, in such a way that it was only a miracle that she had not, in fact, been injured. The minor extent of the damage to both our vehicles was, itself, miraculous. And, looking back at the incident, I thought it odd that the girl hadn't been more in shock at the whole thing. She seemed mildly embarrassed, no more so than she might have been if someone had caught her wearing a pair of last year's shoes. She did not smell of alcohol, and her eyes seemed clear enough to me; yet there was something odd about her whole demeanor.

On the other hand, I haven't spoken with that many people who've just had an accident.

In fact, she was the second.

I've had one other accident in my life. It was in January, 1970. I was in Tampa, Florida, working at a furniture factory (I was a cushion stuffer), and going to electronics school at night. It was a very cold day, and the factory was unheated; so, during my lunch break, I decided to drive around the block a few times, until the heater in the car warmed up and I could thaw out. There was a very thick fog that day, but no traffic; I drove slowly.

Suddenly, out of the fog, came a car that looked just like mine. I jammed on the brakes, but was too close to stop and smashed into the passenger door of the car. Fortunately, the kid driving the other car was not injured. He had sailed out of a cross street without stopping at the stop sign. We discovered, in the minutes before the police and a tow truck arrived, that we each had the same name (Paul), the same car (1967 Valiant), and the same number of sisters (two).

That accident was preventable, in Schneider's definition. Knowing what I know now, I should not have gone driving in a thick fog. Amateur drivers, the theory goes, are idiots and we, the professionals, must drive for them as well as ourselves. In 1970, my decision to drive in such a thick fog was as stupid as the other kid's to do the same. If I had reached the intersection a fraction of a second sooner than I did, he'd have hit me instead of the other way 'round. And he'd have impacted the driver's door with the same force with which I'd impacted his passenger door, which was crushed almost to the driver's seat.

In other words, I'd have probably been killed; certainly I'd have been badly injured.

Which is why I started driving more carefully. And, from that day to this, I'd not had another accident.

Until now.

But, there's no point in agonizing over what might have been. The fact is, no one was injured; her car would be good as new with a little paint; my truck didn't show any new signs of damage. We'd all gotten off pretty easily. I could, and would, be extra vigilant for some time to come; but there was really nothing I could have done, other than not having been on that road at that time, to avoid this incident.

If I hadn't stopped at McDonald's, I realized, this wouldn't have happened. And then I remembered Stella, the woman who sued McDonald's for serving her coffee hot enough to burn. She had literally made millions in that lawsuit, no doubt granted by a judge who'd had his drive-through order screwed up one too many times ("I wanted a Diet Coke!").

It's an ill wind that blows no good. Maybe I could turn this to my advantage…by suing McDonalds!

Just then, I received a response to my request for an authorization for the lumper payment of $80. "Sorry," Debbie replied. "Michelin will only pay $75."

The work assignment hadn't included any such warning, and the dispatcher who'd given me the ComCheck number hadn't mentioned any such thing. "What," I responded via satellite message, "does this mean I get to pay $5 out of my pocket for the privilege of delivering those tires?"

I had as much chance winning a law suit against McDonald's, I realized, as I now had of getting the Sears load to Phoenix in time…or ever seeing that $5 again.