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LIFE ON WHEELS

View of Freeway Traffic From a Peterbilt Perspective

August 24, 1989|JAN HOFMANN | Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

It's 5:30 a.m. Monday. Ken Bowling's Garden Grove neighborhood is quiet and dark as he starts the family van and heads for work.

"Kind of early to be getting on the road, isn't it?" he notes. I nod and mutter something affirmative, stifling a yawn. Bowling has invited me along today to get a look at Orange County's roads from a different perspective: the cab of his 1978 Peterbilt truck, with a 42-foot trailer behind it.

"Years ago, you'd get up at 4 or 5 in the morning, and truckers were the only ones out here," Bowling says. "But now there's traffic nearly 24 hours a day." The surface streets are mostly quiet at this hour, but the freeways are already getting busy.

A few blocks from home, he stops by a doughnut shop for the usual: a foam cup of coffee. By the time he pulls his van up to his tractor-trailer rig, parked on an industrial back street in Artesia, the cup is empty.

Bowling parks his four-wheeler and starts up the Peterbilt's diesel. As it warms up, he circles the rig, inspecting lights, 18 wheels and tires, making sure that the load of lumber he picked up Friday afternoon at Los Angeles Harbor in San Pedro is still securely tied down.

Then he opens the door to the cab and climbs up into his customized seat, with its special lumbar support and spring suspension to cushion the shock of the road. He looks over all the dials and gauges and switches--I've seen simpler airplane cockpits--and eases it into gear.

At the traffic light at the end of the street, I get my first lesson in how trucks deal with cars. We're turning right; the cars from the opposite direction are lined up to turn left. Bowling has the right of way, but he waits to let the other drivers go first. They would just be frustrated if they had to wait for his slow turn, he says, so it's better to let them go ahead than worry that one of them might dart prematurely into the intersection before the trailer clears it.

As we merge onto the eastbound Riverside Freeway, I see instantly why Bowling needs that special seat. I feel as if I'm riding a jackhammer. Bowling apologizes. "It'll settle down some when we get past this stretch," he says. "Concrete isn't very flexible."

Sure enough, when we get past the concrete and onto asphalt, the battering subsides--a little.

We're headed for Mission Viejo, where the lumber will be used to build new $400,000-plus houses on a recently bulldozed hillside.

Even as a boy, Bowling was fascinated with how things got from here to there, on trucks, boats, airplanes, trains. His grandfather was a truck driver. Bowling says he chose that profession because "I like to be on the move all the time."

But now, after nearly 25 years, he is looking for a new line of work. "It's just too frustrating now," he says. He must share the road not only with an ever-increasing number of cars, but with more and more trucks as well.

Before the trucking industry was deregulated under the Reagan Administration, Bowling says: "You were certified to haul one thing, and that's what you hauled. But now every Tom, Dick and Harry can haul anything they want."

With increased competition, some drivers try to undercut the others by hauling loads for less. "It's no wonder those guys are out here rushing around like crazy," he says. "That's the only way they can hope to make money."

On our left, another tractor-trailer rig is passing, with his right turn signal on. Bowling reaches over to flick his lights on and off, a traditional trucking courtesy gesture to let the other driver know he's clear to merge in front. But the other driver does not acknowledge the signal.

"Everybody used to do stuff like that," Bowling says. "I still do; for me it's just part of the tradition. But I don't get many responses anymore."

Other trucking traditions have changed as well. "Years ago, if a truck was stopped on the side of the road, other truckers would stop to help out. Now they just keep on going," he says.

Bowling calls my attention to the side rear-view mirrors. "See that guy back there? He's right on top of me. I would never do that with a truck.

"This rig weighs up to 80,000 pounds, loaded," Bowling says. "You have to respect that."

Meanwhile, in front of us, cars are constantly cutting in. Bowling says he tries to leave adequate space in front of him in case he has to stop suddenly, but it's a losing battle. Even if there is barely room for one car, the space won't stay empty for long. Instead of hitting his brakes, Bowling just keeps dropping back gradually.

As the road gets more congested with going-to-work traffic, he moves carefully over into the center lane in a bid to avoid some merging cars.

"People just panic at the idea of being behind a truck," he says. "They just have to get in front of you."

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