The five-day National Truck Driving Championships kicked off yesterday in New Orleans with a Safety Panel and press breakfast. The driving championship event, which this year sees 385 state champion drivers competing in nine categories at the national level, runs through Saturday and climaxes with the awards banquet where the Grand Champion is announced.

A featured speaker at the Safety Panel was Marty Lawson, Grand Champion in both 1998 and 1999. Under the rules he is barred from competing again this year. Instead, his employer, Harley-Davidson, sponsored Lawson's appearance on the truck safety panel.
ExxonMobil, the sponsor of the championships as well as the press briefing and safety panel, featured ExxonMobil commercial vehicle lubes account executive Mark Velkoff and customer service fleet manager Cam Bower, who runs 200 trucks and 550 drivers for ExxonMobil.
Addressing driver perspectives and industry image concerns, American Trucking Associations America's Road Team captains Marty and Lisa Fortun brought very real meaning to truck safety with articulate comments based on their millions of miles of accident-free truck driving. Safety director for Viking Freight Scott Bishop talked about the philosophies that have made Viking a safety award winner many times over in his 25-year tenure.
The session was introduced and moderated by RoadStar Editor Steve Sturgess.
Fielding questions as diverse as how to avoid crashes to technologies to enhance safety, from driver shortage and drivers under 21 to the keys to sharing the road with motorists, the panelists all spoke with great authority. Lawson, from his position as Grand Champion and a competitor in the NTDC since 1977, said he feels having a good attitude is key to safety and managing a truck. This was reiterated by Lisa Fortun, with backup from both Bishop and Bower as fleet managers. Bower even said that a new program at ExxonMobil of an "attitude check" on drivers as they started the shift was showing good results, with potential problems identified and addressed before drivers even left the terminal.
Bishop stressed the need for communications with drivers and the need to develop a community spirit that helped them share problems and experience. Lisa and Marty Fortun, who have been instrumental in introducing new safety and driver awareness programs at Schneider National (where they drive as a team), outlined the importance of maintaining a calm and non-stressed frame of mind. If she feels that she's not up to a task such as rush-hour traffic in Chicago, said Lisa, she'll get Marty out of the bunk and let him deal with it. If neither feels up to the task, she said they would park the truck and take a break to refresh themselves.
On younger drivers, the panel was surprisingly united. All thought young people have a lot to offer the industry, coming in fresh and enthusiastic before being lost to other careers before they could qualify as drivers. However, all panelists said they thought supervision was the key. Marty Lawson even harked back to his youth -- which was obviously more than a little removed from the thoughtful and responsible driver that makes him a two-time Grand Champion -- in expressing a need to identify the right people and training them well before letting them loose.
All panelists said they were heavily committed to the driving championships -- not only because they highlight the industry's concern with safety, but also because the event gives a rallying point for the competing companies who first had to win a state championship before coming to New Orleans for the final. Scott Bishop said he had six drivers competing for the awards and an additional 60 people from Viking Freight to share in the excitement. "I wish everybody in the industry could come just once," he said. "Then they'd got hooked."
The event continues Thursday through Saturday with the 385 finalists completing the toughest truck maneuvering courses in the New Orleans Convention Center. Each competes in a category that may -- or may not -- be the same as his or her regular driving job. None has seen the course or the truck they will be driving until presented with it during the event. They must also undertake a tough oral test and demonstrate their ability to conduct a pre-trip inspection, finding faults deliberately set on the vehicle.