Safety is truckers' first road rule

Risks: A deadly explosion of a tanker on Interstate 95 lingers in the minds of drivers who are confident in their skills.

February 01, 2004|By Julie Bykowicz | Julie Bykowicz,SUN STAFF

Glenn Dowell ticks off a checklist before heading to his midnight-shift job as a trucker for Fleet Transit Inc.

"License, money, keys, calculator," he says, patting different pockets in his maroon-and-black company uniform. He grabs a worn plastic mug of coffee, pulls a faded cap over his close-cropped silver hair and kisses his wife, Linda, goodbye.

"Be careful," she says, closing the door of their home on Baltimore County's east side. "Please be careful."

Her words aren't spoken -- or taken -- lightly. Glenn Dowell, a father of two grown children and three small grandchildren, hauls more than 200,000 gallons of gasoline every week to Baltimore-area gas stations.

Dowell, 58, loves his job, but acknowledges that it's stressful. There are the night hours, the inherent danger of ferrying fuel across potholed roads, and the drivers who don't understand the difficulties in maneuvering a loaded, 80,000-pound tanker.

With few fatal accidents each year, transportation industry officials say driving a tanker is a safe occupation. But after the recent deadly explosion on Interstate 95, Glenn Dowell and his wife have been thinking a lot more about the risks of his job as a "gas jockey."

"I have confidence in what I can do, and I know what this truck can do," says Dowell, who ran a barbershop in Essex for 16 years before becoming a truck driver in 1990. "The problem is, when things go wrong, they really go wrong."

In the two years Dowell has transported gasoline, he hasn't had any close calls. The work has been comfortably predictable: He hauls five or six 8,600-gallon loads of gasoline each night to Shell and Texaco gas stations in Baltimore and the surrounding counties.

On a recent night, Dowell steps out of his warm two-story home, into the frigid air to begin what will be a 12-hour shift.

It's 11 p.m. As his wife and their three dogs settle in for the night, Dowell makes the 20-minute drive from Bowleys Quarters to the Fleet terminal in Fairfield, an industrial area illuminated by passing trucks and nearby factories. Fleet, a 25-year-old company, is the largest petroleum carrier in the state; its drivers earn about $60,000 a year.

When he arrives, Dowell stops in the dispatch office, a cluttered trailer, and asks for his assignments.

"Welcome to Fleet Transit," a scrolling marquee in the office reads. "Keep warm. Stay safe."

Trucks vs. cars

Inside, dispatchers and truckers trade theories about what happened to Jackie Frost, whose Petro-Chemical Transport tanker plunged from an overpass onto I-95 on Jan. 13, killing him and three others.

Danny Holzberger, a dispatcher and former truck driver, believes Frost, 64, had a medical emergency -- perhaps a heart attack or a stroke. It's a theory that many in the industry share.

"He knew what he was doing," says Dowell, who was friendly with Frost. "Something must've happened to him."

Conversation in the office often turns to tales from the road. Truckers collect stories of car drivers who cut them off, follow too closely or even shout obscenities at them.

Without a doubt, many truckers say, such drivers are the biggest hazard they face.

"People treat trucks as if they're cars," says Craig Talbott, safety director for the Maryland Motor Truck Association and a licensed commercial-vehicle operator. "But they're not equal.

"Because of their size and weight, they're slow-moving vehicles. Slow to steer. Slow to accelerate. Slow to stop."

In June 2001, a Fleet Transit tanker burst into flames when its driver failed to negotiate a curve on Waterview Avenue in Cherry Hill. The driver was killed; no one else was injured.

Still, in 2002, the most recent year data are available, there were 29 fatal crashes nationwide involving trucks carrying flammable liquids. That was just a sliver of the 4,542 fatal large-truck crashes, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Tony Cesenaro, who drives a 75-foot-long double truck for Overnite Express, says cars put him in dangerous situations nearly every night as he makes the 506-mile roundtrip trek from Baltimore to the Pittsburgh area, his usual route.

"We call them `cut-ins,' " he says. "Sometimes, the cars move so fast that you can't even see them until they're right in front of you. And if they slam on their brakes, well, then they've just about sold the farm."

In the mountains along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, Cesenaro says, it is common for drivers frustrated by his slow-moving vehicle to pass at an unsafe speed and "throw the bird when they finally get around."

"I just wave to them," says Cesenaro, who has earned a reputation as "Mr. Safety" for logging more than 3 million miles without an accident or moving violation. "What else am I going to do? I try my best to stay out of hazardous situations."

A night's work

"Be safe," dispatcher Holzberger calls as Dowell heads out.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.