Someone is driving down the Interstate in their small car, when they see looming in the rearview mirror a big black truck with huge, pointy white teeth on the grille as if the rig were going to chomp them up in one bite.
Something out of an anti-truck commercial or a bad 70s horror movie? Nope. A real scene on the highways every day. And we're not talking about just Halloween.
Although they've been around for several years, bug screens that make a truck's grille look like Jaws, the Great White Shark, seem to be appearing on more trucks these days.
I was amazed the first time I saw one last summer. And when I was in Walcott, Iowa, for the second Stars & Stripes qualifying event, I saw three in the space of two days. When I got back, I posted some comments about the image these bug screens portray on a couple of Internet discussion groups for truckers.
"My husband has one on his truck, at my suggestion," said one trucker's wife on an Internet truckers' mailing group discussion. "I think it's cute and a way to personalize the vehicle he spends quite a few hours inâ€¦. I have a friend that has 6-year-old boys. They love my husband's truck, and love it even more since we have added the teeth. I drive a Suburban and if I could find teeth for it, I would."
The problem is, not only are trucks with teeth likely to leave a bad taste in the mouth of the poor four-wheeler, but "safety advocates" and reporters also aren't too likely to think they're "cute."
These kind of people don't have a sense of humor when it comes to trucks - especially truck crashes. What happens when a truck with these teeth on its grille is involved in an accident? I'll tell you: It won't matter one iota if the car cut in front of the trucker and slammed on the brakes if those teeth are filling the TV screen.
Some truckers agreed with me.
"If a 'truck with teeth' is involved in a serious rear-end accident, guess what will show up on the 6 o'clock news?" said Fred Salley via e-mail. "I think much of the image problem that our industry suffers is invited by the way our trucks are decorated. Snoopy painted on a sleeper is cute and innocuous; the Grim Reaper isn't. Teeth on a grille are somewhere in between, and could be viewed as aggressive, especially to the media."
John Kimball, another trucker, added, "Can't you see that a four-wheeler might find this intimidating? We have enough problems with journalists fanning the flames of their fears without scaring them just to be cute."
One poster on the Truck.net bulletin board, an RVer rather than a trucker, asked, "What's positive about trucks with teeth chasing cars down the Interstate? I'm confused. Truckers want to be loved by the public. But they buy teeth for a bug screen! It's like choking someone till he says 'I like you.'"
Another Roundtable poster said, "Common sense tells one that the one and only purpose of these 'Taz' bug screens, as they are called, is to intimidate people. And anyone who says otherwise is blind to logic. I can guarantee that if one of these shows up on any of the trucks operated by my company, they will be removed in short order. These do nothing to enhance our image, and when our customer's names are plastered all over our trailers and power units, I seriously doubt that this is an image that they want their customers to remember."
"Why do so many drivers whine and cry about [their public image], then go right out and do the very things that cause the public to question our driving abilities?" asked one poster.
"I see no value in frightening four-wheelers for the sake of my 'right' the free speech," said another. "I've got better uses for free speech than that. Don't you?"
But these truckers were in the minority. Some criticized me for sticking my nose where it didn't belong. Others wondered what the big deal was.
Some responses were sarcastic:
* "Then when the truck passed me he had a very scary picture of a cowboy with a big moustache with a menacing look, holding two large guns! On his mudflap!"
* "If I wanted to intimidate people I would put a cow catcher on my bumper and an M-60 on each fender, a gun turret on my roof and gun ports in each door."
* "I'm also scared of those CB antennas that are tilted forward. Reminds me of being chased by a bull."
Some seem to take a "why bother" attitude, or even blame four-wheelers.
"I got news for ya, the press and the general public will never care about truckers or our damn image," said one. "Until they go to the store and their Wheaties aren't there, then they might, I say MIGHT, give a damn."
"We are never going to make the four-wheelers like us or respect us," wrote the trucker's wife who thought the bug screens were cute. "And frankly, if a four wheeler is doing something that puts the teeth in their immediate view of the back window, then maybe they have done something to deserve being intimidated."
Her view was mirrored by a post from "Intimidator" on the Truck.net Roundtable, which said, "If you look in your rearview and you see a set of teeth, then maybe you should have been looking more than once every 10 minutes, because this truck didn't just come out of nowhere."
Quite a few truckers said, yeah, but what about naked lady chrome mudflap ornaments, profane speech bubbles in the side windows with sayings like "mustache riders welcome," or misappropriated comic strip character Calvin with his shorts down peeing on various things.
All these things are bad, too. In the early 90s when I worked for another magazine, we used a closeup of the naked lady chrome mudflap to illustrate a cover story on image. "Is This Trucking?" the headline asked. At one truck beauty show I covered, one entrant couldn't understand why his truck hadn't won. On the left-hand side of the back of his trailer was a small cartoon encouraging drivers to "Be a flirt, lift your skirt." Not only did it not go at all with the theme of the rig, it also helps perpetuate the stereotype of the trucker as a lecherous slob like the one in the movie "Thelma and Louise." Points off the score on both counts.
So why did I pick on these toothy bug screens? They're bigger and more visible to someone on the highway than some of the other items mentioned. But that doesn't mean some of this other stuff is good for truckers' image, either!
"You work for a newspaper, you claim you're part of the industry, yet you can't understand the people in the industry -- there are a lot more important things to be thinking of," said Ted Lapatka on the TruckNet Roundtable."
Ted's got a point. Those of us who are trucking journalists stand with one foot within and one foot outside the industry. In some ways we are part of the industry. Yet we also try to maintain our journalistic objectivity. And maybe that's why, while I can understand a trucker's opinion that teeth (or naked lady mudflaps, or whatever) look cool and clever and are part of his constitutional right to express himself, I can also understand the probable reaction of a four-wheeler, safety advocate or mainstream reporter better than most people who are standing with both feet firmly inside the industry.
Sure, there are more important things to worry about - and we do. High fuel prices, low rates, owner-operators being forced to sell their trucks, bad hours of service regulations proposed in Washington, and on and on. But as long as the general public, the media, and our government representatives have a stereotyped image of truckers as unsafe, uncouth, intimidating yahoos, it will be that much harder to address these other problems.
Jeff Seabolt said it well on the TruckNet Roundtable: "You may be important to the economy, but you will learn the hard way that you are outnumbered at the ballot box, and the impression you make on the general public influences their stand on things like regulatory issues. Why, some of these folks have even been known to communic