Truck drivers never stopped driving during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the need for truckers has kept growing over the past few years, but Pennsylvania’s annual safe driver competition was put on the back burner.
This weekend the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association (PMTA) competition heated up again as 138 drivers from across the Keystone State converged at Kalahari Resort in the Poconos to see who are the safest drivers of them all.
The winners will get a gold trophy with a tractor-trailer on the top and head to the National Truck Driving Championships in August in Indianapolis.
Driving to the indoor waterpark campus on Friday, it wasn’t hard to find the group. A line of shiny donated tractor-trailers took up a corner of Kalahari’s huge parking lot near its convention center, with yellow caution tape and orange cones around the driving course.
Then there were the drivers themselves, many clustered together in matching company shirts: the purple and black of FedEx, the drab brown of UPS, and the comparatively snazzy D.M. Bowman shirts with their Jazz-like teal scribbles.
The competition included a written test and a timed mock pre-trip inspection test on Friday, and the driving course contest on Saturday. Clear skies and dry pavement meant perfect competition conditions.
There used to be a driver cooking competition as well, but outside food is not allowed at Kalahari so that was unfortunately out this year. I also missed “Safety Sammy,” a tractor-trailer mascot wearing a red trucker hat.
Looking for adventure
Nikki Weaver, of Harrisburg, was one of the few women in the competition. Wearing her purple and black work shirt, she has driven for FedEx Freight for the past 14 years of her 22-year career.
It’s a career that started when she was simply looking for some adventure.
“I was really excited to get the opportunity to travel and see the country, and thought it was pretty crazy somebody was willing to pay me to do that,” she said with a smile and a laugh. “Everybody should do what they love. And I love to drive. I couldn’t wait to get my driver’s license at 15 years old. I was so excited to get into a car and have the freedom to take myself somewhere. That spilled into a lifelong career for me, which I would have never expected.”
She competed in the PMTA championships four times before, but never won her category.
When I spoke to her Friday afternoon, Weaver had just finished the walk-through of the driving course. Asked what she thought, Weaver gave a very measured answer, “I thought it was going to be a good course this year.”
Did that mean challenging?
“Yes,” she said.
This year Weaver competed in the twin-trailer truck category. She practiced before the weekend — getting together with other drivers on makeshift courses, and doing mocked up pre-trip inspections.
“This is absolutely an amazing experience, everyone here is here because they care about safety. You can’t get here without caring about safety,” she said. “It’s not just a bunch of truck drivers coming together, it’s a bunch of like-minded drivers coming together.”
To qualify, drivers must have 365 days without a preventable accident, said Brandon Moree, PMTA’s director of member communications.
While one driver commented on seeing a lot of “rookies,” new and younger competitors this year, there were plenty of gray heads with decades of experiences and millions of miles driven under their belts.
This is Joe “Allen” Boyd’s fifth time competing in the PMTA competition, too. A driver for 42 years, he previously placed 2nd three times and won a first place trophy in 2017.
Boyd is competing in the tanker truck category. What did it feel like coming back to the competition after a few years away?
“Rusty,” the Everett, Pa. man joked. “It is what it is. Too late to be nervous now.”
Not too late for some. I walked by a quiet conference room labeled “drivers bull pen,” and nerves were blowing out the doorway with the air conditioning. Individual drivers took deep breaths with eyes closed, or stretched their hands before the pre-trip inspection portion.
The pre-trip inspection is a requirement for the job and becomes second nature for drivers, Boyd said. But the contest had five major defects and 10 minor defects; major defects are things that would put the truck out of service, Moree said.
“Their goal is to catch all of them,” he said.
The driving course walk-through could also be a double-edged sword, Boyd said.
“When you walk that course and say, ‘Man this looks easy.’ That’s a huge mistake, and I know that. The last thing I’m gonna do is look at that course and say it’s going to be a piece of cake,” Boyd said.
Orange cones as ‘road kill’
Driving through the tight course in a golf cart, easy was the furthest descriptor from my mind. Drivers were divided into mixed groups from different companies and competing in different categories. Each was given a timed walk-through of the course. Of the 45 drivers in one group I watched,
four were women.
For all the smiles and jokes beforehand, this group had plenty of serious faces, and there was a lot of pointing and whispered planning as they walked among the orange cones.
The course was intimidating to PMTA President and CEO Rebecca Oyler, who had never driven a tractor-trailer before. Saturday’s drive through the competition course was going to be her first time.
“I’m pretty excited about that. A little nervous, but pretty excited too,” she said.
The contest recognizes the safest drivers in Pennsylvania, and is a test of skill and a test of knowledge.
“We’re going to recognize the best of the best today,” she said. “I think you have to have a certain amount of skill to be successful at it, but at a certain point you become good at it and it becomes an art.”
For the drivers, their work didn’t just keep going during the pandemic, it increased exponentially. They met online shopping and supply chain demands, then transported hand sanitizer, masks and COVID vaccine.
Many at the competition agreed there was a real appreciation at the time for the drivers’ work. But after two years, is the appreciation still there?
“I hope so,” Oyler said. Supply chain issues continue to this day, “and truckers are one of the biggest solutions to that problem.”
There is an 81,000-truck-driver shortage in the U.S., she noted, about 3,600 in Pennsylvania alone.
“When we have a shortage of truck drivers, we’re not able to move products,” Oyler said.
A golden tractor-trailer
The annual competition gives drivers a chance to talk shop face-to-face, compare notes on problems and hear about solutions some have found.
They talk about truck parking, the rising cost of diesel fuel, and the changes in the industry from CB radios to cellphones, log books to electronic logs monitoring drivers to the second.
“This is the best part,” Boyd said, sitting in a conference room as groups talked, laughed and relaxed, leaning back in chairs at round tables as they ate pizza. “You become good friends, and you look forward to coming and chatting with them, seeing how they’re doing, how their families are doing. … I’m trying to beat the course. These guys aren’t my competition. They’re my friends.”
Weaver said she didn’t realize how much she missed getting together with the other drivers until she got to Kalahari and started seeing old friends.
“It’s like a family reunion,” she said.
But this is a reunion with a trophy and the chance to add your name to the trailer of winners.
Moree unboxed the first place straight truck trophy so I could take a look and some photos, just as a group of drivers was heading to the course. Plenty eyed it up as they passed.
“Let me see that trophy,” one laughed.
One person who has plenty of trophies is from the Lehigh Valley. Bob Dolan, of Catasauqua, has won the PMTA championship and 16 National Truck Driving Championship titles.
In 2019, he was awarded the Neill Darmstadter Professional Excellence Award for his lifetime of safe professional truck driving. He retired from driving about one year ago after 42 years on the road.
“It’s a great feeling of accomplishment. This is what I do for a living, and I’m proud of what I do for a living,” he said of winning the contests. “This is the ultimate goal of where you need to be … the ultimate goal is to be a better driver for everybody.”
You can see the full list of the 2022 winners here.
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Sarah Cassi may be reached at [email protected].