Navigating her 18-wheeler through the thirsty summer terrain of Central California, veteran truck driver Alice Chaney becomes an impromptu tour guide: "On the right, we have desert," she says, waving a hand toward the passenger window. "On the left, even more desert."
Chaney, a 47-year-old grandmother who lives in North Carolina's misty Blue Ridge Mountains, can't wait to get out of the state, but it isn't just the scenery. To long-haul truckers, California is "communist country," a state that not only restricts them to the far right lanes of the freeway but limits them to 55 mph, the lowest trucker speed limit in the nation.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday August 23, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 9 inches; 323 words Type of Material: Correction
Truck cargo--An article in Wednesday's Southern California Living about long-haul trucking incorrectly stated the weight of a load of produce as 70,000 pounds. That number was the weight of the cargo and truck combined; the cargo alone was about 40,000 pounds.
The refrigerated trailer Chaney is hauling contains 70,000 pounds of lettuce, onions, celery and broccoli she picked up in Salinas. In four days, it's due in the Bronx. Though she's under a tight time constraint, Chaney still plays by the rules. She pokes along on the right, her speedometer hovering just above the legal limit as cars speed by in the fast lane.
From the relatively low perspective of four wheels--where most Americans sit as they commute to work or haul the family off on summer vacation--it's hard to see what's going on in the elevated cabs of America's big rigs. In many ways, Chaney reflects the changing face of the trucking industry--an industry where speeding trucks are increasingly the exception, where insurers and regulators are raising the bar on safety requirements and where more women and minorities are climbing into the driver's seat.
As evidenced in a week spent on the road headed east with Chaney and west with two other drivers--a mother-daughter team--there is plenty that hasn't changed. The stress of delivering loads safely and on time is never-ending, as is the cat-and-mouse relationship between trucks and cars. And many truck drivers are not far removed from the stereotypical Southern white male who stuffs his lip with chewing tobacco and rants unintelligibly into a CB radio as he bullies his way through traffic.
But, just as this post-Sept. 11 summer is different for drivers of "four-wheelers," it is different for the drivers of 18-wheelers. They are wrestling with heightened ethnic tensions on the roadways, worries about the stalled economy, and an underlying fear of new acts of terrorism--the latter of which the government is asking truckers to help fight.
Keeping Her Cool
It's pushing 90 degrees outside, but Chaney is keeping cool. Her air conditioner is on, and her long, strawberry blond hair is pulled into a high ponytail. A jumbo-size travel mug sits on the floor next to her seat.
Driving with her right elbow propped on the stick shift, Chaney exudes the sort of calm confidence that can only come from experience. In the 22 years she's been trucking, she's logged more than 2 million miles. She's never had an accident. Her last speeding ticket was 15 years ago.
"We have to be really aware of what's going on," Chaney says as she wheels up the 101 between fields of onions.
"We can do a hundred times more damage than a car could even think of doing."
Chaney's enviable safety record is not one that all drivers of cars or trucks share. Though car drivers complain that truckers are a road hazard--that they speed, tailgate and box them in--truckers say the problem is the four-wheelers--who cut them off without signaling, lurch across lanes and pay more attention to their phone conversations than what's happening on the road.
Still, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, the number of fatalities in truck-related crashes is at an all-time low, having dropped for the fourth consecutive year. And a recent study by the American Automobile Assn. indicates that cars are at fault 75% of the time in accidents between cars and big rigs. One major reason: Car drivers simply don't know very much about trucks. They don't know that it takes at least the length of an entire football field for them to stop, or that there are dangerous blind spots on every side of an 18-wheeler. Few, if any, states even mention trucks in driver education. That puts the onus on truckers--not only to avoid making dangerous moves of their own, but also to counter all the ones by unknowing or reckless automobile drivers.
Every move made in a big rig has exaggerated consequences. Chaney is slow and deliberate as she backs her truck into the long and narrow parking space between two other big rigs in a line of several dozen. Her rig, which is 4 1/2 cars long, is completely straight. It has to be. There is only 3 feet of clearance on either side.