A reporter for the Tampa Tribune recently rode on Polk roads with Bob Means, a driver for Lakeland-based Discount Auto Parts. Traveling at 40 mph, a car cuts in front of them. Means hits the brakes on his loaded tractor-trailer and comes to rest at a red light, just feet from the bumper of the car in front of him.
"Driving a semi ain't no different than driving a car, because people do the same things to us in a semi that they do to other people driving cars," Means told the reporter. "It's just harder in a semi. I'm driving something a whole lot bigger and a whole lot heavier. People need to realize that."
There were 3,900 accidents in Florida in 1998 involving commercial trucks. Florida Highway Patrol Trooper Larry Coggins said it's a safe bet that many of those wrecks happened in Polk County. He said four of the busiest roads in the state cross through Polk: U.S. 98, U.S. 27,
Interstate 4 and State Road 60. Add to that the number of distribution centers and trucking corporations based in the county, including Discount Auto Parts and Publix in Lakeland and Commercial Carrier Corp. in Auburndale, and the number of commuters and vacationers who travel the county's roads daily, and Coggins said it's a recipe for disaster.
"We're cramming a lot of people onto roads that weren't built to handle the traffic," Coggins told the Tribune.
He said the patrol frequently investigates accidents involving commercial trucks, and a common perception of the public is that the truck drivers are at fault.
But Coggins believes a big part of the problem is that many motorists don't know how to share Polk's roadways with trucks.
"The majority of the wrecks we have in this county with commercial vehicles generally are the result of cars cutting in front of them or running into the back of them," Coggins said. "These are big trucks hauling thousands of pounds of merchandise and they can't stop on a dime like a car can."
Means, 40, who generally hauls long-distance to Georgia, Mississippi and throughout Florida, said he's seen all kinds of drivers and roads. He said many of the roads in Polk County are too narrow to handle the traffic volume, and motorists are often in too big a hurry to drive safely and watch out for commercial trucks.
That's why many Discount Auto Parts drivers deliver at night, when there is less traffic, said Discount spokeswoman Kristi Mullis.
She said the chain delivers to 618 stores in six southeastern states. The company's drivers undergo stringent safety training programs and the company's fleet of 41 tractors and 80 trailers are regularly inspected.
Another driver interviewed by the Tribune, Bill LeFevre, an independent truck driver and owner-operator based in Monroe, UT, said that as safe as truck drivers try to be, the finger is usually pointed at them when there's an accident.
LeFevre, who has been driving trucks for 23 years, said the roads in Polk County and Central Florida aren't as bad as some roads he's traveled, but the traffic is worse.
He said truck drivers might be able to co-exist easier with drivers of smaller vehicles if the motorists were educated about the pressures that truckers face.
"They don't teach kids learning to drive about driving a truck," LeFevre said. "They should have to ride in a truck and see things from our perspective. That might stop them from zipping in and out of traffic around us and slamming their brakes on in front of us."