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Driving Championships Media Day Yields Good Press For Trucking Industry

August 19, 2009

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American Trucking Associations has a number of publicity projects going, and one - Share The Road - scored a few points this week as a local TV news crew zeroed in on that safety message. It happened during a brief Media Day event prior to the start of the ATA's National Driving Championships, which begin August 20 at the convention center in downtown Pittsburgh, Pa.
Maneuvering the long rig through the cone- and barrel-marked obstacle course is much tougher than it looks, declared WTAE-TV News reporter-anchor Michelle Wright.
Maneuvering the long rig through the cone- and barrel-marked obstacle course is much tougher than it looks, declared WTAE-TV News reporter-anchor Michelle Wright.


The two-woman crew from WTAW-TV, Channel 4, interviewed Eddie Hosegood, of Lakeland, Fla., and a driver for Publix Supermarkets. He sat in the cab of the association's Share The Road tractor and explained how motorists should act around big rigs out on the highway. Reporter-anchor Michelle Wright said later that she'd include the tips on her planned one-minute, 30-second story on that night's newscast. It turned out to be 1:50 (watch it here.)

Three tips Hosegood gave her: Don't linger in a tractor-trailer's blind spot. Pass only on the left. And once you pass and merge back in front of it, keep up your speed. Don't slow down. "I've been guilty of that myself, and I'm not going to do it again," the good humored brunette said after her spin around an oval orange-coned course set up for news reporters. She drove rather smoothly for someone who's never been inside a large truck. And, as she said, "I don't even know how to drive a stickshift."

"It was tough, extremely tough - much tougher than I expected," she said of the demo course. "You have to not just drive but also keep track of that big thing behind you." At first she was clearly unaware of the 53-foot semitrailer's offtracking because she dragged its tires over several cone obstacles as her photographer, Kathy Driscoll, shot moving images on her Sony Digicam.
Then, listening to Hosegood, who calmly gave instructions from the passenger seat, Wright took turns much wider and got through the course in acceptable - if scoreless - style.

The Media Day demo course was a much simplified version of competition courses in two halls adjacent to the one we were in. But it was more difficult than it looked. After about an hour and a half, Wright and Driscoll had finished their interviews and filming and departed; like any TV news crew, they tried to move fast but consumed time in setting up things and people for shooting. And everyone watched because it's not something they see every day. I understand all that because I was once in that business.

After they'd left, I climbed into the tractor and crept through the course twice with Road Team Captain Jim Gallagher, who drives for YRC out of Buffalo, N.Y. He offered helpful advice on how to enter the turns and so on. Not so helpful was the tractor's surprisingly wide turning radius - a setback front axle is supposed to allow tight wheel cuts, but this one didn't. Well, that's the way it is, as Walter Chronkite used to say, so I tried to make the best of it. Mack loaned the otherwise nice Vision to ATA for a year, and GE Capital loaned the long van trailer.

"You've got to take it slow," Gallagher said as I swung too wide on my first turn. "Let the engine idle in (2nd) gear and line up your moves." I did, but the route wasn't clear to my eyes, and the turns and a couple of barrels marking a short serpentine course would've been incomprehensible except for his directions. I couldn't make it through either time without stopping and backing. "Rookies get back-ups, don't they?" I asked him.

"Actually, no," Gallagher said. "'Constant motion' is required" in competition. "You've got to keep moving while setting up your turns. If you stop and have to back up, you lose a lot of points." Top score on this course was 50 and I have no idea how I did, except that the backups would've killed me. Twice I was able to roll the trailer's right-side wheels within a foot of a barrel during a blind-side turn - the same maneuver that's part of a CDL test - and felt kinda smug for a guy who doesn't drive often, but Gallagher observed it matter-of-factly. He's a pro.

One or two rehearsal runs would help a competitor in the National Driving Championships, but drivers are not allowed to see the courses before starting them. They do know the routine and most spend a lot of hours practicing, with their employers' encouragement, before entering local, state and, if they're good enough, the annual Nationals. But not always.

"I saw one guy come in cold and go through the course and max it," Gallagher recalled. "He was a natural."

Most who participate in the Nationals work for large trucking operations who have the resources to support drivers in the ATA competitions and like the professionalism that results. YRC (the now-combined Yellow and Roadway operations), Con-way, and Wal-Mart Transportation are major backers and had registration tables for their employee-competitors set up in the lobby of the nearby Westin Hotel. Staffers issued shirts and caps to drivers and their family members who become quiet cheering sections during the maneuvers, which move slowly and are almost boring to watch unless you're behind the wheel or know a guy or gal who is.

Other competition maneuvers include backing into simulated alleys and loading docks, and into a parallel parking place on the driver's blind side. Convex mirrors are covered because not all real-world trucks and tractors have them, Gallagher explained, which makes a driver's practiced sense of where the vehicle is much more important. Wright and I were allowed to use them to look along the rig's right side during our runs; this underscored the usefulness of "spot" mirrors and makes me believe that any truck owner who refuses to buy them ought to go to a nut house.

I mentioned to Gallagher that I had driven trucks to work my way through Marquette University in Milwaukee many years ago, and that Buffalo, where he now lives, was the hometown of one of my best friends at MU. He nodded and said, "I spent two semesters at Marquette." He decided that college wasn't for him, so instead works for a living and is now one of the best in the driving business. We talked about studies, low tuition costs in the 1960s, and how things unfold as one encounters bumps and curves in the proverbial road of life. But what a coincidence!

Gallagher was among a troupe of ATA Road Team captains who are staffing the competition. Some are posted around the huge, sparsely marked and therefore confusing David L. Lawrence Convention Center; they guide attendees to the hard-to-find halls, which is gross underemployment for these guys, who are some of the most intelligent, well-spoken, pleasant and polite people I've ever had the honor of talking with. They are the best ambassadors the trucking industry has, and ATA managers know it, so these fine men and women are placed in front of the public and the press whenever possible.

As for Media Day, a Transport Topics reporter was the only other one who showed up besides Wright and me, and the TT lady didn't try to drive the course, says Eric Reller, ATA's manager of media outreach. Still, he feels the two-hour event and the preparations that went into it were worthwhile. He knows he got a very positive report from Ms. Wright at Channel 4 - you can't buy good publicity like that - and that TT, an ATA newspaper, will run a lot of glowing copy about the Championships. He might even like what I've written.


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