Life on the road

bbashioum@demo-mo.comFebruary 14, 2014 

In America, trucking is big business as nearly 70 percent of all the freight tonnage moved in the United States goes on trucks, according to the American Trucking Associations.

“The average piece of freight gets moved (on a truck) six times before it gets to you and me,” truck driver Jerry Chamberlain said. “If trucking stops, America stops.”

Trucking becomes a way of life for drivers like Chamberlain, who drives a freightliner to Hebron, Ky., a community west of Cincinnati, to pick up Toyota automobile parts and bring them back to Kansas City.

It’s a 10-and-a-half hour drive each way. His nights on the road begin about 7 p.m. and end in the wee hours of the morning.

“Some people call us the last cowboys because we literally are out out here on the range every night,” Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain, 55, has driven more than two million miles for J.B. Hunt Transport in the past 17 years.

The Belton resident was honored for his mileage and proven safety record at an annual awards event at J.B. Hunt’s headquarters in Lowell, Ark. in October 2013.

Chamberlain also received special distinction for having no “preventable collisions” during his career.

As a token for commitment to safety, J.B. Hunt awarded Chamberlain a $10,000 bonus.

“This is my home for the better part of 70 hours of every week,” said Chamberlain, sitting in the driver’s seat of his 2010 freightliner carrying a 53-foot trailer.

While he has been recognized for his commitment to safety on the road, truck driving wasn’t necessarily a job he has always aspired to have.

“I didn’t plan for this to be my career,” he said. “Who would have thought 35 years later I would still be driving.”

Chamberlain initially had plans to go to college and become a certified public accountant. But in the 1970s, the banking industry crashed and instead found work as a school bus driver in southern California.

After 10 years of busing children, he became a delivery truck driver.

Seventeen years ago, he then had the opportunity to join the ranks of J.B. Hunt.

His present assignment is to make multiple trips to and from Kentucky each week to bring replacement parts for damaged Toyota vehicles back to Kansas City region.

Because fatigue is a common issue on the road among truck drivers, federal guidelines restricts drivers to driving 11 hours in any one day within a 14-hour window of service.

They can not also operate longer than 70 hours in a seven day period unless the driver takes a 34-hour reset, which he can only do once every 168 hours.

Drivers must also take a 30-minute break before you reach eight hours of driving in a day.

“The rules get to be quite excessive sometimes (but) are there for safety,” Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain makes 2-3 roundtrips to Kentucky each week, averaging 3,050 miles weekly.

He spends only 48 hours at home every weekend.

Safety is a mindset for Chamberlain, and for his company.

“The driver is the captain of his ship,” he said.

Procedures are in place that log sheets can’t be altered, speed can’t exceed 62 miles per hour, and continuing education and safety training are a part of a driver’s normal routine.

Chamberlain carries a Class A commercial driver’s license with passenger, air brake and hazardous materials tanker endorsements

“You have to have standards and professional guidelines. You can never let safety sleep,” Chamberlain said. “It’s a hard life. I’ve seen people killed on the highway.”

The act of an automobile slamming on their breaks while driving in front of a tractor trailer is something a truck driver has to be prepared for.

It takes the length of three football fields for Chamberlain’s truck driving at 62 mph to come to a stop after his brakes have been applied.

A passenger vehicle only needs 22 feet to stop.

If a collision is non-preventable, drivers like Chamberlain are trained to do the best they can to minimize the impact.

Drivers also have to have a fairly clean bill of health and pass an annual stress test.

“Most of us have an attitude that we want to get home at the end of the week safely,” Chamberlain said. “You can’t ever be in a hurry.”

It’s also J.B. Hunt’s policy that if a driver feels that the road conditions are unsafe, particularly during this time of year when roads can be slick and snowy, Chamberlain won’t be second-guessed if he makes the decision to pull over.

“If you don’t want to drive in ice, don’t,” he said. “They want me to do everything in my power to get the load delivered, but they also want me to get it delivered there safely.”

The same goes for strong winds and extreme fog situations.

Next to safety, Chamberlain said patience is also a virtue that good drivers must have.

“If you don’t have patience, you can get frustrated,” he said.

When he isn’t on the road, Chamberlain enjoys watching NASCAR, bowling and is an avid square dancer. “I enjoy the job, but you do have to make sacrifices,” Chamberlain said, noting time is often limited to enjoy his hobbies and maintain a personal life and relationships.

“This is not a job or a career, it’s a way of life.”

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