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The Rookie: A new driver looks back at his first year on the road

By on December 31, 2012

His initial solo drive for U.S. Xpress is sort of a blur to first-year driver, 22-year-old Lee Johnson. It was several months and thousands of miles ago, but some details of the day are still fresh.

Screen shot 2014-02-28 at 3.13.25 PMJohnson remembers his heart racing as he picked up his load of axles, drive shafts and gasket kits in Shippensburg, Pa. He remembers being nervous and thinking about everything he’d learned in school and as a trainee. He remembers feeling excited as he climbed into his cab to begin the 10-hours plus drive to Henderson, Ky. But mostly, he remembers putting on his poker face.

“I didn’t tell anybody that it was my first time,” says Johnson. “I didn’t want anybody to be aware of that if I could help it.”

As far as Johnson knows, no one noticed that he was making his inaugural run.

“I went extra slow that day and I was really careful,” he says. “I didn’t make any great time but I got there all right. I didn’t have any issues, really.”

Even when it came time to back his truck up to the loading dock?

“That wasn’t a problem,” says Johnson. “My trainer made sure of that.”

The decision to drive

When his work in collision refinishing slowed two years ago, Lee Johnson decided to become a truck driver. In one sense, he already had an edge.

“I’d lived and worked on a farm so I drove big vehicles before,” he says, “but none of them had a 53-foot trailer.”

So, he headed to the Tennessee Truck Driving School in Knoxville. After completing his CDL course in early 2012, he was hired by US Xpress in Chattanooga, Tenn. Following orientation, he was paired with a trainer, million-mile safe driver Randy Earl, 53, who rode with him for three weeks before he set out on his own. Among other things, during the time they were together, Earl made sure that Johnson learned to proficiently back up a truck.

“Every time we got back to the terminal, Randy would make me go to the lot across the street and practice backing for hours before he’d let me go home,” says Johnson.

According to Earl, he has done that with every one of the 30 students he has taught.

“If you can’t back a trailer into a dock to get loaded or unloaded then there is no need for you,” says Earl. “A company won’t keep you. You’ve got to know how to do that and not just back in a straight line.”

Backing is just one of the many skills Johnson honed during his training. Earl drilled him in lane control, switching lanes, watching the mirrors, maintaining a 360-degree awareness (what’s on every side, in front and in back of the truck), adjusting for certain weather conditions and handling a light versus a heavy load. Earl also schooled the young driver in filling out e-logs and operating the Driver Tech onboard computer system, as well as less technical but still crucial skills such as communicating with fleet managers, dispatchers, mechanics and customers.

“There’s a world of stuff to learn besides just sitting behind the wheel,” says Earl. “And Lee was like a sponge. He wanted to know everything I knew.”

And Johnson has no intention of stopping there. “The best advice Randy gave me was, ‘When you quit learning, it’s time to stop driving,’” he says. “Every day you learn something new.”

Tips from a veteran

Price Moore, 31, drives for XTreme Trucking in Green Bay, Wis., was raised in a trucking family and has years of trucking know-how. Road King asked him to share his top tips for new drivers.

  • Slow down. “That’s the most important thing. Slow down and take your time. You’re not driving a car.”
  • Pace Yourself. “When I started out, it was ‘Go! Go! Go!’ Now, with the CSA coming out and the government educating our customers about the new laws, people are aware that you can’t overnight stuff like you used to. Take breaks when you need to. Do what you need to do to get there in a safe manner.”
  • Anticipate. “Don’t put yourself in a bad situation. You need a way out in case something happens in front of you or to the side. Drive ahead of yourself, at least a quarter of a mile in front of other vehicles.”
  • Relax. “When you’re stuck in traffic, just relax. There’s nothing you can do about it. I pretty much shut off the CB and jam to some good music. Just be sure to pay attention to what’s going on.”
  • Ask Questions. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Every driver was new at one point, too.”
  • Show Up. “Treat driving like any other job. Just because your bed is behind you doesn’t mean you can use it any time you want to. Keep the doors shut, drive down the road, and put in the miles. This is a job. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get it done.”
  • Soul Search. “Trucking is a great job but know what you’re getting into. You can be a local driver, a regional driver or an over-the-road driver. OTR is a lifestyle and a career. It requires dedication and a family that supports your decision.”

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  1. Becky

    January 3, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    Great feature on Lee Johnson. So proud of him. Keep on truckin’, nephew!

  2. Gary Johnson

    January 3, 2013 at 6:02 pm

    Lee’s my son. When he was about three, he would watch the garbage truck drive by in front of the house and say, “That’s what I’m going to do when I grow up.” I encouraged him to shoot higher by telling him that although garbage truck drives were doing honest work, they didn’t get paid much. His reply was always, “Yeah, Dad, but they get to drive that truck!”

  3. Doug Hope

    January 4, 2013 at 5:09 pm

    I remember riding with Lee in a small truck on a busy interstate when he was 15 and had his driver’s permit. It was clear that he knew how to drive then. No surprise that he can handle a tractor trailer now. Great article. Be careful out there, Lee.

  4. Michael Saks

    January 25, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    It seems the older #drivers have a big influence on the younger #drivers. Maybe there is an opportunity there. I featured some ideas that were inspired by this article on my #trucking blog

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