Section 1 - Truck Driving School 

Introduction

I am keeping a journal to document the whole process of becoming a truck driver. Instead of posting new information week by week, I will try to post the journal in three sections. The first section follows, below. I wrote this section in late December 2002 after completing truck driving school, but before starting a real driving job. I will try to add another section once I find a driving job and complete the additional company training on the road. I will then try to add a third section once I have completed several months of solo driving, assuming I get that far.

My Background

At age 50, I have already had a full career of more than 20 years as a computer engineer, mostly writing software for communications systems like cellular telephone systems or satellite communications systems. Although I liked the kind of work I was doing and was good at it, after a while it began to take a toll. The jobs were getting bigger and bigger, and the schedules tighter and tighter. In late 1997, more than 20 years into my career, I decided that I had had enough for a while. It was just too stressful, and I needed to take a break. I quit my job, bought a sailboat, sold my house, and took off cruising. I suppose you could call it a mid-life crisis, but whatever it was, it was a huge change.

After spending more than a year refitting the boat, I cruised south to Florida for the winter of 1999 - 2000, then north to Chesapeake Bay in early summer 2000. I worked for two seasons at a marina in Solomons, Maryland, and although I enjoyed the work, the pay was too low for long-term survival. After cruising south to Charleston, South Carolina, for the winter of 2001 - 2002, I cruised back north to Baltimore, Maryland, in early summer 2002 to look for a job. Liveaboard cruising is a wonderful hobby, but the pay is lousy!

Back when I started cruising, my original plan was to cruise for a couple of years, then resume my computer career. But I've now been away from computer work for more than five years, so I'm pretty "stale" from a technological point of view. And to tell the truth, I don't have a whole lot of interest in returning to computers—20+ years of sitting behind a computer is enough! Even if I wanted to return, there aren't many computer jobs around, and most of the jobs in the Baltimore area are for government projects that require a current security clearance, which I don't have.

Selecting A New Career

The question is: what to do, what to do? I'd like a job with some "meat" to it, and one that's challenging. Also, I'd like a job that pays enough to live on, and then some. (I want to have money left over so I can save up for additional sailboat cruising.) The problem is, as a middle-aged former "computer geek", I don't have a lot of experience in other fields, so I need to choose a field where inexperience (or middle age) isn't a big drawback.

I now have a golden opportunity to reinvent myself as something completely different. I have already done that once before, changing from a stressed-out "computer geek" to a laid-back liveaboard sailboat cruiser. The process of reinventing myself had many challenges, but at the same time, it was exciting and interesting. After all, how many times in your life do you get to completely change the direction of your life and do something completely different? For me, not very often!

During my first "reinvention", I looked upon the process with some trepidation, unsure of myself and anxious of failure. However, my cruising adventures turned out to be interesting, exciting, and filled with new experiences. Now that I'm going through my second "reinvention", I'm much less anxious, and in fact I'm really enjoying the process. Whatever I do next, I will choose carefully so it's interesting, challenging, and full of new experiences.

I spent a lot of time looking through the Sunday classified ads and browsing employment sites on the internet. There were lots and lots of relatively boring and unchallenging jobs—not for me, thanks. There were quite a few jobs that sounded interesting, but required significant experience—scratch those, too. Every Sunday, there seemed to be lots of job ads for medical technicians (like nurses) and truck drivers. I don't want to be a nurse. What about being a truck driver? Hmmm...

What I Found Out About Truck Driving

During late summer 2002, I spent quite a while investigating truck driving as a new career. I spent a lot of time on the internet and found lots of good information. I discovered that truck driving has both positive and negative aspects.

On the plus side, it would be something completely new and different, a major new challenge for me to tackle. It would also be both a job and an adventure, compared to computer work which was all job and no adventure. The industry seems to be very receptive to new drivers, even those of middle age, due to a severe shortage of drivers. Training is readily available from private schools, community colleges, and schools associated with trucking companies. There are many jobs available, and the pay for new drivers seems to be somewhere in the low $30K range in your first full year of driving. You have a high level of responsibility without a manager looking over your shoulder all the time.

On the negative side, truck driving seems to be very demanding of your time, energy, and patience, and seems to produce more than the usual number of frustrations. Part of the reason why there are so many jobs available is that it's a difficult job, requiring a lot of patience, skill, maturity, and energy. The driver turnover rate at some companies exceeds 100% per year, so it's apparently quite common for drivers to get fed up and quit. After all, if truck driving jobs were really great and well-paying, all the job openings would be immediately filled.

After doing a lot of research on the internet, I'm beginning to think that some of the "problems" with truck driving jobs are due to the expectations of the drivers being out-of-whack with what the job can deliver. Drivers with families seem to have a lot of problems because they are away from home so often, other drivers seem to have little patience which causes problems waiting to pick up or deliver loads, other drivers can't handle being alone so much, or working outside in all kinds of weather. Some are just not mature enough to handle the major independent responsibility that the job requires. I actually think I'm fairly well suited for the occupation, and if I keep my expectations in-line with the reality of the occupation, I think I'll do OK.

I discovered that there are several different kinds of truck driving, for example, long-distance truck driving (also called OTR, for "over-the-road"), regional, local, dedicated (servicing one customer only). The different types of driving determine how far you drive and how often you get home. OTR truck drivers can drive all over the country for days at a time, and only get home typically once every couple of weeks. Regional drivers might get home every weekend, local drivers every night. Although getting home is important, many new drivers start out driving OTR, since it seems that the more desirable routes (home more often) are assigned to the more experienced drivers who have already "paid their dues" by driving OTR. I'm interested in long-distance driving, which to me looks similar to cruising on my boat, except it's obviously "cruising" on land. I live on my boat by myself and have no dependents, so the limited home time of OTR driving shouldn't be a problem. My boat can pretty much take care of itself while I'm away.

There are also different types of tractor/trailer combinations. The most common is a tractor and a "dry van", which is your typical box-type enclosed trailer. There also are refrigerated trailers (for meat or frozen food), bulk carriers (for things like powdered cement), flatbeds (for steel and machinery), tankers (gasoline or chemicals), etc. New drivers typically get dry vans, since they are the least dangerous. You wouldn't want a new driver hauling hazardous chemicals, since the consequences of an accident could be very severe (poisoning an entire city, for example!). I'm pretty sure I don't want to haul a refrigerated trailer, since it seems they have more than the average amount of delays. Flatbeds would seem to require lots of agility to tarp and secure a load—I'll leave that for the younger guys. At some point, I wouldn't mind hauling a tanker, but at this point in my career (zero experience), I think I'll have to settle for a dry van.

You can drive solo or as a team (of two people). Solo is just what it sounds like—you're always by yourself, and you stop the truck when you need to rest. Team driving is where the two drivers take turns driving to keep the truck moving 24-hours a day, except stopping for fuel. Teams transport "expedited freight"—high-priority shipments that must get there as soon as possible. I have lived by myself for years and enjoy my own company, so solo driving sounds just fine to me. In contrast, team driving sounds downright grueling.

Many companies hire drivers who work for the company as employees. Other companies hire "owner-operators", independent contractors who own and operate their own truck—basically a mini one-truck company. Sometimes a company will hire both company drivers and owner-operators. I have no interest in owning my own truck—it sounds like a huge amount of extra work, on top of the already substantial demands of the truck driving job itself.

Some trucking companies only service a particular region, for example, New England, or east of the Mississippi. Other companies service the entire lower-48 states. I'm interested in driving 48-states, for maximum variety. Of course, you go where your dispatcher sends you, which depends on where the freight is moving. It seems that the heavily-industrialized eastern half of the U.S. needs the most service.

To summarize, the type of driving I would like to try is as a company driver hauling a dry van doing 48-state solo OTR. As far as I can tell, this is also the most common type of driving, with the most job openings. I also figure this to be the type of driving with the most adventure. In any event, I have decided to give it a try. At this point, I don't know enough about the occupation to be sure that I'll like it, so the only way to find out is to try it. Even if it turns out that I don't like it, I figure I can stand it for a year, just to earn some money, then I can do something else.

Deciding How To Get Trained

To tell the truth, when I started investigating truck driving as a career, I had never even been in a tractor-trailer truck—I certainly had never driven one. Step 1, then, was to learn how to drive a truck. I had noticed on some training-related internet sites that not everyone can handle a big rig—some people are too intimidated by the size or just don't "get it". I certainly hoped this wouldn't happen to me, but what if it did?

To answer this question, I decided to get truck driver training locally in Baltimore, at my own expense. This way, I could find out quickly, easily, and "on my nickel" if I could handle a big rig. Another training approach would be get to driver training at a trucking company, but I had a few problems with that approach. First of all, it seemed that you had to sign a contract to work for a certain amount of time (like a year), otherwise you'd have to pay back the cost of training. Training always seemed to take place in some far-away, God-forsaken place, which would be a nuisance. But the biggest problem was that company courses seemed to be very short—as little as two weeks! How could I learn everything in such a short time? Even if I learned enough to pass the course, it would no doubt be a very difficult and stressful time—not very conducive to learning and not a very satisfying introduction to truck driving.

In early October 2002, I started investigating truck driving schools in the region. There were several schools, but most of them were more than an hour away by car and would be inconvenient to attend. Baltimore had two truck driving schools: a private school and a program run by the Community College of Baltimore County. I visited both schools and talked to their representatives.

In my opinion, the private school seemed very intent on making as much money as possible, including trying to convince me to finance the tuition. I didn't even get to talk to someone who knew anything about truck driving, or who even knew the details of the training program. I only got to talk to a sales representative whose main function, I decided, was to weed out the losers who wouldn't be able to pay or qualify for financial assistance, and arm-twist those who could pay into signing up right away and financing their tuition. It was too much of a high-pressure sales pitch, and I came away from the interview disappointed.

I talked at length with the director of the training program at CCBC (the community college), and I was very impressed by his dedication to providing excellent training and supporting his students even after they graduate (in certain situations, they can come back for more training at no extra cost). He knew a lot about the industry and told me how the training related to industry requirements. I had done an internet search on the program and didn't find out very much, but I did discover that the director was quite involved in the truck driving industry in Maryland and truck driving schools in particular. I considered this to be a good sign, since someone so involved in the industry would certainly strive to provide good training—the quality of the new drivers coming from his school would directly reflect on the quality of his training program.

I signed up to take the truck driver training course, which ran for eight weeks from mid-October to mid-December 2002. It was a full-time course that met for about seven to eight hours a day, five days a week, for eight weeks (about 300 hours, total). The first two weeks would be spent in the classroom, then the remaining six weeks would be spent on the driving range and road. Towards the end of the course, we would take our official driving test administered by the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA). The tuition for the course was $5000, which was pricey for a community college. The tuition also covered the DOT physical, textbooks and classroom materials, MVA fees, etc. If you didn't pass your MVA driving test on the first try, the tuition would cover the cost of up to two more driving tests. I paid for the course out of my own pocket (so I was VERY motivated to succeed), but most people taking the course got financial assistance from the government due to being recently laid off. I signed up to get the Class A license. This is the full license to drive tractor-trailer trucks. There is also a lower class license, Class B, that allows you to drive busses or straight trucks (that is, trucks that don't "bend" in the middle like tractor-trailer trucks). Sometimes, if students can't master the class A driving, they can get a class B instead, and still wind up with marketable skills.

Before The Course Started

Before the course started, I went to the school to take placement tests which tested basic reading and arithmetic skills. They sometimes get applicants who have trouble with these basic skills, and they need to figure out which applicants need extra help. I took the tests and I'm sure I got 100% since they were very easy.

Before the course started, I also had to get a "DOT physical", which was a special physical that conformed to requirements set by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The truck driving school requested $150 up-front to cover the cost of the physical, which was administered at a local walk-in clinic. If you passed the physical, you could then enroll in the course and pay the balance of the tuition. The purpose of the physical was not necessarily to check your health across-the-board, but to see if you had any specific problems that would interfere with truck driving. For example, if you had mobility or strength problems with your limbs, problems with sight or hearing, any kind of condition that could cause loss of consciousness (epilepsy, diabetes, heart problems, etc.). I had to fill out a form that had a list of many possible ailments and injuries, and if I checked any boxes, I had to discuss the information with the doctor. I had reviewed all my personal medical files beforehand and typed up a list of all pertinent information. Also, I had found the complete DOT physical form on the internet, including the instructions for the doctor. Having all this information beforehand made it much easier to fill out the form in the doctor's office.

It's a good idea to take the physical well before the truck driving course starts, so if you discover a problem, you might have time to solve the problem before the driving portion of the class starts (for example, by starting to take blood pressure medication). If it's a big problem that can't be solved, at least you would find out before investing extra time and money in the truck driving course. The most difficult section for me, and for many others, was the blood pressure test. It had to be no greater than 160 over 90, which is the limit for "high normal" blood pressure. I didn't have any problem with the higher number, but my lower number was 90 which is the limit, so I just barely squeaked by. If you are outside the limits, you can get treatment (such as drugs) to lower your blood pressure, then take the physical again. The end result of taking and passing the physical is the "DOT card", which is a small certificate that you have to carry around at all times and show along with your license whenever requested. You can't drive a commercial motor vehicle without a valid DOT card in your possession.

A few days before the course started, we had an orientation meeting with the director. He handed out copies of the course curriculum and the rules and regulations. The rules were strict but fair—students were expected to commit 100% to the program and no goofing off or unprofessional conduct would be tolerated. The director said the course would be "hot and heavy, hard and fast", so it would not be the kind of schooling that you could "sleepwalk" through. He also handed out textbooks for the class A CDL. Our textbook was called "Truck Driver's Guide To CDL" by Career Publishing, Inc., which was based on the standard CDL manual but had significant extra information including practice written tests (which were very helpful). He also handed out textbooks for the class B passenger endorsement and said we should study it and take the corresponding MVA written test, so if we couldn't handle the class A driving, we could instead get a class B license with a passenger endorsement.

The director recommended that we study the material and take the MVA written tests as soon as possible, so if a student had a problem area, they could find out where they needed more work. It didn't cost anything to take the written tests, and there was no real penalty for failing a test—simply take it over again. If we had time available on Friday (the next day), he recommended we read through the books and take the MVA tests just for practice. I read through the books and took all the tests, and passed them all—before the course even started! There were seven written tests: general knowledge, air brakes, combination vehicles, doubles/triples, tankers, hazmat, and passenger endorsement. As an aside, I found out that I needed a certified copy of my birth certificate for the hazmat endorsement, which is one of the post-9/11 changes that are being implemented. Also, MVA now does a background check for all hazmat endorsements.

Classroom Training

The first two weeks were classroom instruction; we met from 8 AM to 4 PM with a half-hour lunch break and a short break in mid-morning and mid-afternoon. The first day of class I met my fellow classmates. We had six people in the class, including me. They were all men, mostly in their 30's (at 50, I was the oldest), and most of them had been laid off from other jobs. One student used to work as a technical supervisor on a cable-laying ship that roamed the world laying undersea fiber optic cable to satisfy the internet boom. When the internet boom went bust, the business dried up, and he got laid off. Another student was a co-worker of the cable-laying man; he worked as a forklift driver until he got laid off. Another student used to work as a PC network technician until he got laid off. Then he worked as an ink mixer in a printing plant until he got laid off. As an earlier job, he once worked as a mortician, embalming corpses. Another guy was a salesman at a tropical fish store. Much earlier he used to drive trucks with his uncle, but he didn't learn all the driving skills—his uncle only let him drive the straight highways, so he never learned how to maneuver the truck in close quarters. Another student was only in his early 20's, and was entering the field because his father was a truck driver. And finally there's me, a former "computer geek" turned sailboat cruiser. All in all, quite an assortment of characters.

We had a really good teacher who was very easy to get along with and who had lots of truck driving experience—he said he had "hauled everything from chicken sh*t to a satellite". He told some good "war stories" about his truck driving experiences, including one time when he lost his brakes coming down a mountain out west, and at the bottom of the mountain, went flying through town, blowing his air horn and running red lights until his truck coasted to a stop. Another story was when he was exiting a highway on a rainy night and some idiot car driver on the exit ramp started to back up to get back on the highway. Our instructor hit his brakes and wound up skidding and losing control of the truck. He went off the road, overturned, and was partially ejected since he wasn't wearing his seat belt (he was injured but not very seriously).

Here's a summary of the classroom training, day-by-day. It might read like a disconnected list of topics, but it was well-presented and generally followed the textbook. We had additional classroom instruction not based on the textbook, such as our defensive driving course and the drug/alcohol awareness course.

Classroom Week 1

Monday, 10/14/02 - Introduction to truck inspections: pre-trip, en-route, post-trip, with additional information on some items for the MVA pre-trip test. Introduction to logbooks and the four categories of duty status. Backing: what to look out for, using all your mirrors. Information about driving: looking ahead, up-shifting, down-shifting, RPM's, going up and down hills. Brake usage (and pitfalls), brake fade, spring brakes, Jake brakes, speed management. Adjusting and using mirrors, defensive driving and looking for hazards, coping with reduced visibility. Emergency stops (placement of red reflectors), computing stopping distances, traction (losing it and regaining it), skids, ice, hydroplaning, rollover risk, winds, night driving, use of escape ramps. Hazards along the road, planning how to cope with emergencies, accident avoidance, detecting and handling tire failure. Information on combination vehicles: weight distribution, jackknife risks, trailer hand brake. Air brakes: the in-cab brake buttons and what they are used for, air brake system components (compressor, tanks, hoses, shutoff valves, slack adjuster, low air alarm, brake lights, spring brakes, dual brake system, air brake leak test, parking brakes). Load management, weight distribution, bridge formula, securing loads, special concerns for flatbeds and tankers.

This seems like a lot for one day, but there was minimal detail for each topic. The goal was to learn as much as you needed to know for basic safety and to pass the CDL written tests. There was emphasis on the air brake leak test, since on our MVA test, we have to perform the air brake leak test perfectly, otherwise you fail. Other portions of the MVA test allow for a few minor errors, but not the air brake leak test.

Tuesday, 10/15/02 - We had a detailed presentation by recruiter from TMC, a flatbed company out of Des Moines, Iowa. It seemed like a pretty good company, and the school wouldn't let them in to recruit unless they were decent. I'm not too keen on driving a flatbed, though, since every load requires you to climb all over to secure, and perhaps tarp, the load. In the classroom: We spent significant time going over the details of transporting hazmat. Also, how to fill out logbooks, the hours-of-service rules and regulations (10-hr rule, 15-hr rule, 60/70-hr rule). Practiced filling out logbooks using a sample trip.

Wednesday 10/16/02 - We started using our logbooks yesterday, and every morning, we'll turn in the previous day's page. Today we had a few miscellaneous topics, then the instructor gave each of us a Rand McNally Motor Carrier's Atlas and we spent a while planning and logging two sample trips. For some people, this was their first introduction to map reading and trip planning. I had a hard time seeing the tiny mileage numbers on the map and vowed to bring in a magnifying glass for the rest of the classroom training. (I found a rectangular "pop-out" magnifying glass with built-in light at Wal-Mart which worked very well.) You also definitely need to have a calculator. The instructor handed out our official yard handbook, which contained written-out instructions for all the range maneuvers, as well as other basic operating instructions for the truck. The handbook had the complete pre-trip inspection that we would need to learn for the MVA examination. For homework, we have to start memorizing it. We also heard a rather shocking "war story" from our instructor about a former student at the school who had an accident on his first solo run once he started working. He was carrying a load of steel on a flatbed, and lost control of the truck while reaching for something in the cab. The truck rolled over and he was ejected from the cab since he wasn't wearing his seat belt. The still-moving truck ran him over and killed him. The moral of the story was that it's important to wear your seat belt—you never know when you're going to need it, and it could very well save your life.

Thursday 10/17/02 - Today we heard another presentation, this time from a financial planner from the Maryland Motor Truck Association. He gave us some advice on how to allocate our funds for security and future income. This wasn't a very helpful presentation, since it didn't really have anything to do with truck driving. Also, the guy was basically a salesman, and although he was approved by the MMTA, he was basically trolling for business. We worked-out another practice trip, doing trip planning with the atlas and filling out log sheets. Saw a video and got a lecture about skids and how to recover—"a skidding wheel always leads the parade". We heard a few more "war stories" from our instructor: One time, he tried heating a can of beans on the exhaust manifold. He didn't open the can first to relieve pressure so the can exploded and got beans all over the engine compartment. Another time, he got snowed-in out west and had to leave the truck on the roadside. When he went back after it stopped snowing, the truck was literally buried in snow. Snowblowers had cut a path for the road, but you couldn't even see the truck it was so buried. He had to get a state road department crew to help him dig it out. Saw a video—"Seven Deadly Sins of Winter Driving". (1) Failure to prepare (clothes, food/drink, tools, sand); (2) Lying to yourself (it isn't going to happen to me; if I just go a few more miles); (3) Overconfidence (losing fear of ice and snow and driving too fast for the conditions); (4) Not understanding the physics (traction loss; don't ask your truck to do something it can't do); (5) Bad judgment (pushing ahead when good sense says to stop); (6) Lack of knowledge (inappropriate or incorrect driving behavior for winter); (7) Not seeing the big picture (delivering a late load is not the end of the world). "You will never regret being too safe, but you will regret not being safe enough."

Friday 10/18/02 - We saw a video on accidents and learned what to do in case of an accident. Also, what to do if the truck breaks down. Got more info on logbooks. We were dismissed early so we could go to the MVA office to take the written tests. The first time (a week ago) was for practice, now it's for real. In case of failures, we'll get another chance to retake tests next week.

Classroom Week 2

Monday 10/21/02 - We had an all-day, major presentation with videos, lectures, and a test for a defensive driving course (and certification) called "Drive to Survive". Every year, 41,200 are killed in accidents, 2,300,000 are injured, resulting in $113 billion in insurance payments. "Defensive driving is driving to save lives and insurance money in spite of conditions around you and the actions of others." Factors that cause accidents: driver, vehicle, conditions. 60% of accidents are due to driver error. How to prevent accidents: (1) Recognize the hazard, (2) Recognize the defense, (3) Act correctly and in-time. Saw an unforgettable (and heart-wrenching) video "Room To Live" where a former police officer vividly described accidents. There were no gory scenes—he just lectured in front of an audience, but it was mesmerizing and very real. The #1 killer in accidents is being thrown out of the vehicle, due to not wearing seat belts. The police officer had on numerous occasions found dead people thrown out of their vehicle, but the vehicle, despite suffering major damage, still had "room to live" inside the passenger compartment. If only the victims had worn their seat belts, they would likely still be alive. The officer's final comment in the video: "I never unbuckled a dead person from an accident".

Tuesday 10/22/02 - In the morning, we took several hours to work out a complicated trip-planning and logging exercise. This one would be graded and count towards our final classroom grade. In the afternoon, we had another major presentation with videos, lectures, and tests, this for our drug and alcohol awareness certification. I don't have any problem with drugs or alcohol, but the course material was very interesting, nevertheless. 50% of vehicle collisions involve alcohol. They described a test of airline pilots in a flight simulator 24-hours after smoking one joint. None of the pilots thought they were impaired and they all thought they were doing fine, but their performance on complex tasks was much worse than normal, even a day later. When they simulated landing an airliner, they were twice as far off the runway centerline as normal, which was almost as bad as when they were obviously impaired. For truck driving, we learned all the times when a driver can have a drug/alcohol test and what the consequence are if you fail or refuse the test. There are many situations when you can be tested, and the consequences of failure are very severe—drugs and alcohol are a big no-no and will ruin your career!

Wednesday 10/23/02 - We had been studying the extensive pre-trip inspection litany for days, to prepare for real pre-trip inspections once we get to the range, next week. Today, we had a written test on the pre-trip inspection, where we had to write it out from memory. We were also tested on the air brake leak test, which we had to write out perfectly to pass. Had a lecture/video on how to cope with road rage (both your own and that of others), more discussion of rollover risks. We took the final exam for classroom portion (I got a 98). We got an introduction to what we will be doing on the driving range next week, with some tips from our instructor (for example: "most beginners tend to oversteer when backing—you only need to make small adjustments").

Thursday 10/24/02 - We were basically running out of things to do, since we had been able to cover the classroom material fairly rapidly. We had lectures/videos on backing concepts and backing safety. We had another in-class written test for the pre-trip inspection.

Friday 10/25/02 - In the morning, we reported to the driving range instead of the classroom for our driving range orientation. At the range, we start at 7:00 AM, so I have to wake up at 5:00 AM (when it's still dark out) to make sure I get there in time. It takes me about an hour to get ready in the morning, and it takes about a half-hour to drive there (I stop to pick up a car-less classmate in the city). We met the head range instructor and got to look over the trucks for the first time. The instructor demonstrated an official pre-trip inspection on a real truck, with all the proper "patter" to pass the MVA test, and pointed out all the parts to us. We were dismissed early so people could finish taking the MVA written tests, and so everybody could get their CDL Learner's Permit. Although the written tests were free, it cost money to get the learner's permit. The school issued each of us a check for the proper amount so we didn't have to pay anything else out-of-pocket. I had already taken my tests, but my car-less classmate needed to take a few more. Everybody has to have a CDL Learner's Permit and DOT physical card in-hand on Monday morning so we can start driving on the range. No permit, no driving.

Training On The Driving Range And Road

[CCBC driving range]  
This is the driving range. You can see one of the cabover rigs parked on the right.  

We spent the next six weeks on the range and road, learning how to drive a tractor-trailer truck. To pass our MVA test, we would have to perform a pre-trip inspection, then demonstrate the following maneuvers: straight-line pull-up to a stop line, straight-line backing, sight-side parallel parking, blind-side parallel parking, and alley dock starting from a 45-degree position. We would then have to take a road test of about 17 miles that included city, suburban, and highway driving. During the next six weeks, we would practice the pre-trip inspection many times, and would learn all the maneuvers and practice them numerous times. We would also learn to drive on the road, and would take numerous road trips, both large and small.

The driving range was in a big gnarly industrial park with a huge building that used to be a copper smelter. The company went out of business so the property is now greatly underutilized. The college is allowed to use a large paved area that used to be the parking lot as an off-road driving range. There are several other buildings around the driving range, all abandoned and decrepit. The area looks like a movie set for a city after a nuclear war, with ruined, empty buildings overgrown with weeds. Sometimes when we walk around the parking lot, we find copper nuggets stuck in the pavement, where they fell off a truck and were run over and pressed down by numerous truck tires. If you pry a copper nugget out of the pavement, you get a nifty souvenir.

The trucks we drive consist of a White/GMC (Volvo) tractor with a 48-foot-long trailer. It's your typical 18-wheeler, complete with giant-size radiator, tall chromed exhaust stack, and lots of wheels and tires. The overall length of the whole rig is about 60 feet, although when you're learning to drive it, it sometimes seems like 160 feet. There are several big signs on the trailer saying "Student Driver", which seems to get us an appropriate amount of respect while driving on the road. Car drivers usually don't mess with big trucks in the first place, and they seem to stay even further away when they see that the driver is a newbie who doesn't know what he's doing!


[CCBC conventional tractor-trailer rig]   [CCBC cabover tractor-trailer rig]
These are the rigs that we drove, conventional on the left and cabover on the right. We usually drove the conventional rigs since they were empty. We only drove the heavily loaded cabover rigs once.

I didn't take such detailed notes at the range, so I'll just provide an overview of what we did each week.

Range/Road Week 1 - 10/28/02 to 11/01/02

The first day, we got more orientation details, including a discussion of the good/bad places to eat lunch. The first two days, we concentrated on doing real pre-trip inspections, and testing each other. While one person recited the patter from memory, the other person would follow along in the book to make sure no items were missed, and that the patter was suitable. For almost any item, if you didn't remember the patter, you could fake it pretty well by saying "...I'm checking to make sure the <whatever> is properly secured and not damaged", but this is lame and the instructors (and the examiners) are not going to let it pass. For each item, you're supposed to say several actual things you're checking, and not just a generic statement. For example, when checking the steering linkage, you're supposed to say "I am checking the STEERING LINKAGE, from the steering gearbox to the front wheel, that all LINKS, ARMS, and RODS are properly secured and not damaged, all JOINTS and SOCKETS are properly secured and not damaged, and there are no missing or loose nuts, bolts, or cotter keys". Each capitalized word/phrase is an item on the official test sheet that you must mention to earn the point. While you're reciting this, you're supposed to touch each item as you mention it, or point to the item if you can't reach it.

Before we had the trucks to work with, I was memorizing the pre-trip using a set of flash cards that I made out of 3x5 cards. For each major section of the pre-trip, I would write the name of the section on the front of a card (for example, "first drive axle"), then on the back of the card I would write the subsections ("suspension, brakes, wheels"). Then for each subsection, I would write the name of the subsection on the front of a card (for example, "wheels") along with a number indicating how many items ("14"), then on the back of the card I would list the items ("axle seal, inside sidewalls, inside tread, inside rim, spacer, outside sidewalls, outside tread, outside rim, lugnuts, lugnut holes, inside valve stem and cap, inside tire inflation, outside valve stem and cap, outside tire inflation"). Finally, I would make one flash card for each item, writing the beginning of the patter on the front (for example, "I am checking the tread of the outside tire...", then on the back of the card I would write the remainder of the patter ("...to make sure the tread depth is no less than 2/32", there is no tread separation, and the tire is evenly worn"). I made flash cards for the entire pre-trip this way, which resulted in a big wad of cards, but the technique worked very well for me.

On the third day, we learned how to couple/uncouple the tractor and trailer. We learned the procedure that goes "by the book" for maximum safety. Our instructor told us that most experienced truck drivers skip some of the steps to speed things up. While we're learning, we need to learn all the details, but once we're earning a living, time is money. The instructor also demonstrated how to slide the tandems on the trailer, and it looked like it would be a little tricky if you were doing it by yourself.

The next day, we learned how to drive straight. I'm not kidding, this was an actual lesson. It turns out that it's a little tricky to do it properly, since the view from the cab makes it harder to see all around the truck. We also learned how to back up in a straight line, which was fairly difficult at first. The trailer has a tendency to veer off to one side or another (since the truck can "bend" in the middle), so you have to turn the wheel slightly to make corrections while backing up. You can't veer outside of your lane, though, because you need to demonstrate this maneuver on your official driving test, and if you veer out of the lane, you fail!

On Friday of the first week on the range, we learned how to parallel park a 60-foot tractor-trailer truck! This maneuver is also on the driving test. It was moderately difficult, but like many new skills, if you practice it step-by-step numerous times, eventually it begins to make sense and things work out better. The tough thing about parallel parking was consistency—if you could do the maneuver exactly the same way each time, it would always work out just right. But normally, things would be a little different each time, and the maneuver wouldn't work out properly. You'd have to sit in the cab and try to figure out how to correct the problem. If you sat for too long, the instructor would come over and help you out.

Everybody seemed to notice an interesting phenomenon. While you're standing outside, watching another student maneuver, you can readily see his mistakes and figure out how to correct them. But when you're sitting up in the cab doing the driving, it's much more difficult to see your mistakes and to figure out what to do. One of the reasons is just the stress of being "on the spot" and maneuvering the huge truck under the steely gaze of the instructor. But also, when you're in the cab, it's a lot harder to see all around the truck and judge distances and angles. When the rig is "jacked" (that is, bent in the middle), the big flat mirrors are not very useful, so you have to use the smaller round mirrors (the "spot" mirrors). If you're trying to judge distances at the back of the trailer, that's already nearly 60' away to begin with, and the curvature of the spot mirror makes it look even further away. So what you're looking at in the mirror winds up looking very tiny. It's also difficult judging angles from inside the cab, since you're facing (mostly) forward, but looking sideways into a mirror to see backwards, looking at the trailer which is at a different angle than the tractor—now which way was I supposed to turn the wheel???

Range/Road Week 2 - 11/04/02 to 11/08/02

On Monday, we had lots more practice doing parallel parking. The type we learned Friday is called "sight side", since as you pull up alongside the parking space, the parking space is on the driver's side—you can just look out the window to see it. On Tuesday, we also learned "blind side" parallel parking, where you pull up with the parking space on the passenger's side. Since the driver can't see everything on this side directly, it's called the "blind side". I think the blind side parallel parking was actually a little easier than the sight side parallel parking, since as you finished up the maneuver (with the rig jacked 90 degrees and the trailer in the box), you had a better view of the results (or lack of results!) by just looking out the driver's side window. But don't lean out the window—if so, you fail! We were cautioned to never roll the window all the way down, so the remaining window would keep us from leaning out.

On Wednesday, we learned the alley dock maneuver, where you back the rig up to a simulated loading dock, starting from a 45-degree position. This was the trickiest maneuver, since a lot of distances and angles had to be "just right" to make it work properly. If you mis-positioned the truck, you would have to pull up or back up, or turn this way or that way. Certain types of corrections cost you "points" when you take the driving test, and you can't use up more than 16 points for all the range maneuvers combined. You also can't hit a cone or hit the curb—these are grounds for immediate failure. The alley dock seemed to work fairly well for me. It wasn't always perfect (hey, let's be honest—it was rarely perfect), but I could usually figure out how to correct problems without burning up too many points or getting flustered.

On Thursday, a recruiter from Werner Enterprises (a major trucking company) came in and talked to us. He had a pretty good presentation, very polished and with a little humor in the right places. But unfortunately, he didn't have any job application forms with him, so I'll have to get one elsewhere. The driving school encourages students to apply early to multiple trucking companies, even before you graduate, so the companies have some time to check out your background. If they like what they see, some companies will issue a pre-hire letter that says they'll hire you once you graduate. There's a fairly strict background check for new employees, especially since the terrorist attack, to make sure the employee is not a mad bomber or something like that. Also, most drivers must get qualified to haul hazardous materials, and the qualification process includes a background check.

Also on Thursday, we finally learned how to shift gears. Up to this point, we were doing all of our maneuvering in first gear. But tomorrow, we'll actually go out on the road in real traffic, and we need to know how to get the truck moving (upshift) and how to slow it down (brake + downshift). The truck has a nine-speed transmission, plus reverse. The shift pattern is similar to the 1st-2nd-3rd-4th stick-shift pattern of a manual transmission car, but the truck has an extra switch on the gearshift lever. When the switch is down, the shift pattern covers 1st through 4th gears, then you flip the switch up and use the exact same shift pattern for 5th through 8th gears. There's one more gear which is called "low", but we haven't used it yet. Plus, of course, reverse, which we have used.

Unlike an automobile, the truck's transmission does not have gear synchronizers that allow you to smoothly shift between gears with just a single depression of the clutch. In the truck, you have to double-clutch. For example, here's how you change gears from first to second: assuming you're driving in first gear, you first let up the accelerator, push in the clutch, shift to neutral, then let the clutch out. Then you push in the clutch again, shift to second, let the clutch out, and press the accelerator to continue driving in second gear. Double-clutching is tricky at first, but once your clutch foot, accelerator foot, and gearshift arm get "trained", everything works pretty well. In the beginning, though, it was pretty bad. If you don't double-clutch with the correct tempo and at the correct engine/driving speed, the shifter refuses to engage in the new gear and there's a horrible sound of grinding gears. You can sometimes force it into gear, but then the transmission makes a huge metallic "crunch" as the gears are forcibly jammed together. Instead of forcing it into a new gear, you can also go back to your old gear, or go to the next higher gear. If you demonstrated any reluctance to make the gears mesh (due to the grinding sound), sometimes the instructor would just slam the shifter into a gear, and you'd swear that the transmission gears would be totally stripped of gear teeth. The transmissions must be super-tough, though, because students have been using (and abusing) the trucks for years and they still work. The reason you might have to force it into a gear is that you can't let the truck roll down the road without it being in-gear. This is called "free-wheeling" and if it happens on the driving test, you fail!

On Friday, we finally got to drive on the road in real traffic. We drove what the instructors called "course 1", which was a relatively easy course without too many tricky details. That doesn't mean it was easy—the first time I drove a tractor-trailer truck on the road it was difficult, period. The reason is that you must perform numerous skills all at once in "real time", which requires a lot of concentration and coordination. It's not like driving on the range, where you perform the skills one by one, and you have all the time in the world. Now you're driving in traffic, with traffic lights, school crossings, speed limit changes, and all the other real-world conditions to contend with, plus, you have to do all the fancy hand and foot work to operate the truck. It was a little overwhelming the first time around the course, and I messed up numerous shifts (ground the gears, or forgot what gear I was in and mis-shifted). But the instructor said afterwards that all students have the same types of problems the first time they drive on the road, and that over time and with practice, all our skills will improve and we'll be driving just fine. We still have four more weeks of driving time, thank heavens.

Range/Road Week 3 - 11/11/02 to 11/15/02

At the start of the third week of driving, we continued driving on course 1, and we also got to drive the MVA course, which is the course we will drive during the official Motor Vehicle Administration driving test. This course is more difficult, with tricky turns, narrow streets, lots of traffic, plus it includes a high-speed section driving 65 mph on the interstate. For many of the turns, you need to swing wide and use more than one lane to keep the trailer tires from riding up over the curb (if so, you fail!). When you have to swing wide into the oncoming lane at a traffic light, there may already be cars waiting in that lane. In that case, you have to pull the truck right up in their faces, practically front-bumper to front-bumper, and wait for the cars to back up. As the cars manage to make more and more room, you creep forward to complete your turn little by little. When you see that your trailer tires are going to clear the curb, you can finally pull back entirely into your lane and proceed with the driving. The first time I had to do this, it was a little scary. What if the drivers didn't back up? Would I be stuck in the intersection for hours, maybe days? (News flash, film at 11: student truck driver takes three days to complete a right turn!). As it turned out, not only do car drivers move out of the way, when they see that huge truck looming up over them they positively scatter!

When we go on a road trip, there are usually three or four students plus one instructor in the truck. The instructor always sits in the front passenger seat; the student who's driving sits in the driver's seat. Behind the front seats, there's a big bench seat that is actually the sleeper berth where a long-distance truck driver would sleep. The school has installed individual seats with seat belts for three people along the bench seat. So while one student is driving, the other two or three on the bench seat watch what's going on. It's actually a very helpful way to learn, since when you're not driving the truck, you have more time to think about what's going on, and what you would do in each situation. Then when it's your turn to drive, you are a little better prepared.

There are no dual controls on the truck, so the instructor must let the student do all the driving. There's one safety feature that the instructor can use in an emergency. All trucks with air brakes have their parking brake controls on the dashboard, midway between the driver and passenger seats. If the instructor has to stop the truck, he can pull out an air valve button, which immediately slams on the brakes for both the tractor and trailer. This is only for emergencies, since slamming on the parking brakes will probably cause the engine to stall and the trailer to skid, so it's not without consequences. I only heard of this being done once for our class, by another instructor.

During the third range week, we got to practice all our range maneuvers just like we would do them for the MVA test. That particular day, there was a cold drenching rain all day. On the range, the student who's driving is the only person in the truck. Everybody else had to stand outside in the rain, watching. At least the students got to sit in the truck now and then—the poor instructor had to stand outside in the rain all day. You have to really like what you're doing to put up with all that bad weather—and the boiling hot weather in the summer, too. To their great credit, the instructors are all very good at what they do, and they maintain a very good attitude towards teaching despite frequent difficult conditions.

On Thursday, we took a road trip from Baltimore to Breezewood, PA, where I-70 meets the Pennsylvania Turnpike. This was an all-day trip, with each of the four students driving a leg. When we reached Breezewood, we stopped at a big truck stop for lunch and a break, then hopped in the truck and headed back to Baltimore. This was a fun day, and it closely approximated what we would be doing as real truck drivers working for a living—except there would be only one driver in the truck who would do all the driving!

At the end of the third range week, we took our midterm examinations (yes, even truck driving schools have tests). The exams simulated exactly what we would do for the official driving test, starting with a pre-trip inspection, then all the range maneuvers, then the road test. Since we only recently started driving on the road, the road test portion of the exam would take place next week. I passed fairly easily—I know the pre-trip inspection very well, and can do the range maneuvers fairly well. You don't have to be perfect to pass. For the pre-trip inspection, you can forget to mention quite a few things and still pass. For the range maneuvers, you can make up to 16 small errors that count as "demerit points", but you can't make any major errors like hitting a curb or knocking over a cone (you fail!). The truck driving school itself requires a minimum grade point average of 70 to pass the course and get your certificate.

Range/Road Week 4 - 11/18/02 to 11/22/02

During the fourth driving week, we started going on some more difficult road trips so we could further develop our truck driving skills. Just driving down the highway is easy—stay in your lane and keep the pedal to the metal. But navigating this way and that way through narrow streets in the cramped old industrial areas of Baltimore is much more challenging. Remember, the truck is 60 feet long, and most of the streets were not designed for such a big vehicle. It was very challenging. One time I cut a corner a little too tight and my trailer tire rolled over the curb a little. As punishment, I had to go all the way around the block and do all four tight right turns over again without hitting the curb. I was more careful the second time around, knowing that if I hit the curb, I'd have to go around again and again! (News flash, film at 11: student truck driver drives around the block 863 times!)

[18% grade sign in Ellicott City]  
The 18% grade sign on Ilchester Road in Ellicott City, MD. I drove the truck on this grade.  

We also drove on a devilishly difficult road near Ellicott City that I'm sure was designed during horse-and-buggy days—it was so narrow and so twisty-turny that sometimes when you went around a sharp turn you could look out the front windshield and read the license plate on the back of your trailer! (just kidding, the truck can't bend that much!) In one section, the road was so narrow that it went to one lane, and a narrow lane at that, perched between a cliff and a river. This area also had an 18% grade, which is unbelievably steep! The mountain grades out west are about 5% or 6% on the interstates, with some that are 7%. The road near Ellicott City was a local road, so they could get away with a steeper grade. 18% means the road descends 950 feet per mile; it looked like we were driving off a cliff! As it was, the descent was much less than a mile long, but what it lacked in length it made up in steepness.

The instructors took us on these narrow, twisting roads to practice compensating for offtracking. Offtracking is where the trailer keeps to the inside of a turn, more so than the tractor. If you drive around a sharp curve and keep the tractor centered in the lane, the rear of your trailer will drift out of the lane, due to offtracking. If the road curves sharply to the right, your trailer tires could go off the pavement; curving to the left, the rear of your trailer could wander into the oncoming lane, interfering with traffic. I always had to concentrate on compensating for offtracking, although with enough practice, I guess it would become more-or-less automatic.

This week, we also practiced our range maneuvers and heard from another company recruiter. We drove on a couple of road trips, one to southern Maryland and another to northern Maryland. Both times, we had a combination of highways, local roads, and narrow, twisty-turny back roads, so that we got experience in all kinds of driving conditions. On one trip, another student was driving down a busy road past a small area of construction that had the shoulder completely blocked. All of a sudden, a man riding a bicycle pulled out from the shoulder and on to the driving lane, to pass the construction area. He didn't even look, but just pulled out right in front of our truck. The student who was driving hit the brakes and veered to the left (there was traffic in that lane), and narrowly missed the bicyclist. We all were shocked that a person could be so reckless as to pull on to a highway traffic lane without even looking. I'm sure the man didn't know that there was a truck bearing down on him—a truck driven by a student driver, no less!

On Friday, the instructor posted the MVA test schedule. We would have two days of testing: Wednesday, December 11, and Thursday, December 12. The test dates had been reserved long ago, since MVA has a very busy schedule. We have two driving range courses on-site, and I would go second on course 2. In the morning, it was too foggy to drive on the road, so we practiced pre-trip inspections. After lunch, we heard from a recruiter from D.M.Bowman, then we practiced maneuvers on the driving range.


Range/Road Week 5 - 11/25/02 to 11/27/02

Our fifth week was a short week, since we had a break for Thanksgiving. On Monday, we each drove the MVA course twice, then we drove over to the Catonsville campus of CCBC (the school that offers this truck driving course). The school administrators were thinking about having other students in the vocational school paint the trailers used by the truck driving school. Unfortunately, the people who were going to measure the truck and estimate materials couldn't be located, so we drove back to the range with the mission unfulfilled.

On Tuesday, we got to drive the cabovers for one road trip. The cabover rigs were heavily loaded with concrete "jersey barriers"—our truck weighed 71,300 lbs. The truck handled the weight surprisingly well, although the weight was very noticeable when going up hills. Even slight hills required that you put the "pedal to the metal" to maintain speed. Our cabovers had the same wheelbase as our conventionals. You sat very high up, and had excellent forward visibility. Our cabovers also had a big "doghouse" (engine cover) between the two seats. It was very awkward to climb back to the sleeper where the other students sat to wait their turn, and the guy in the middle had a very uncomfortable spot. I was a little disconcerted by how little "crumple room" the cabovers had. In any accident, the driver would be extremely vulnerable. We only drove the loaded rigs once, since they wanted to limit the wear-and-tear on the heavily-loaded trucks. For all our other road trips, the trailers were empty (well, not quite empty—each trailer had all of 15 orange cones!).

On this same trip, we got to visit a scale house and truck inspection facility along I-95. All states, including Maryland, have "weigh stations" on major highways where trucks drive across a scale to get weighed. Trucks can't exceed a total weight of 80,000 lbs, plus there are limits for each axle. This is to make sure that overweight trucks don't damage roads or bridges—plus overweight trucks aren't safe, since their suspension and brakes aren't designed for excessive weights. We watched from inside the scale house as numerous trucks rolled across the scale. This particular facility had special scale strips embedded in the main lanes of the highway that pre-weighed the trucks before they entered the weigh station. One oversized load carrying a big bulldozer came in, and was pulled over. The big blade on the bulldozer was too wide for his permit, and he had to remove the metal expansion strips on each side of the blade.

The weigh station also had a truck inspection facility, where randomly-chosen trucks were pulled into a building to be inspected by state officials. The inspection took about 15 to 30 minutes, and they usually found one or more problems with most of the trucks. If a minor problem was discovered, the truck driver might be given a written warning to get the problem fixed and could continue driving. If it was a major problem, the truck driver might get a citation that required paying a substantial fine of up to several hundred dollars or more. In addition, the truck driver might be ordered to wait in the parking lot until a truck repair crew could come to the scene and fix the problem. This is a very expensive and time-consuming way to repair a truck, so most trucking companies try very hard to catch all problems during scheduled maintenance stops at company facilities.

Range/Road Week 6 - 12/02/02 to 12/06/02

[Steve, an instructor at CCBC]  
This is Steve, the CCBC instructor who supervised the Tennessee trip. He's scraping ice off the mirror using a credit card; the mirror heater wasn't working.  

On the sixth week, I got to go on a special trip from Baltimore to Greeneville, Tennessee and back. Every winter, the college that operates the truck driving school volunteers the use of a truck and crew to deliver a load of donated goods from a collection center in Maryland to a drop-off site down south. This year, we were taking a full load of clothes, furniture, toys, and miscellaneous household goods down to an Indian reservation in eastern Tennessee. On Monday, we took one tractor-trailer truck plus a straight truck up to the collection center in Maryland, which made for a good road trip by itself. They brought the straight truck since it had a large crew cab that could carry several people, and we wanted as many "volunteers" as possible to help load the trailer. We spent a few hours loading our 48' trailer absolutely full—front to back, side to side, top to bottom—full!

The next day, we drove down to Tennessee. Due to conflicts in other student's schedules, I was the only student making the trip, along with one instructor. I drove a while during the beginning of the trip, running on the open highway. I noticed the peculiar effect of the engine's speed governor. Once you reached top speed of just over 60 mph, you could floor the accelerator and it had no effect whatsoever. As another example, let's say you were coasting downhill with your foot off the fuel. Once you reached the bottom of the hill, you pressed the accelerator to build up speed to climb the next hill. But if you were traveling more that 63 mph or so, when you pressed the accelerator, nothing happened! It was just like the pedal had been disconnected. Once you started rolling up the next hill and started slowing down, the engine would gradually come to life again, though you still had the pedal floored. Strange!

I noticed that I got much more tired driving long distances in the truck compared to driving my car. I think that truck driving is still new enough for me that it requires heavy concentration and is a little stressful, which saps my energy. In a car, this trip would be a piece of cake, but it was more difficult in the truck. I mentioned this to the instructor, and he said that he felt just the opposite. He is so used to driving a truck that he finds car driving to be more tiring. After a while, we changed drivers and the instructor drove on into deteriorating weather. We were driving into a big storm system, and rain, snow, sleet, and freezing rain were forecast at various places along the route. I tried to sleep in the sleeper berth, but it was very uncomfortable—remember, this is a school truck and there are three seats bolted across the width of the sleeper!

When we finally got to the drop-off site, we were met by a crew of people who helped us unload the truck and put everything into a mini-storage facility, all while it was pouring down cold rain. It was a tight squeeze getting the truck in and out of the mini-storage facility, and when we tried to leave after hours of heavy rain, the truck got stuck in the putty-like mud (which was the color of butterscotch pudding). The spinning drive wheels were digging ruts in the mud and splattering the truck with mud. The facility manager had a backhoe on-site and he used it to give us a push. That did the trick, and we were on the road again. The heavy rain washed all the mud off the truck.


[Bad road conditions]  
Driving back from Tennessee, with poor road conditions. Steve is driving, I'm in the passenger seat.  

We started driving back to Baltimore, but soon ran into icy roads that forced us to stop and spend the night in extreme southern Virginia (in a motel paid-for by the school). The next morning, we started early and got back to Baltimore in mid-afternoon. The instructor drove the entire return trip, because there was freezing rain that made the road too slippery for an inexperienced student driver. It was still an educational experience for me, since I could watch what he did to cope with the road conditions. I also got to watch him "float" the gears very smoothly (shifting without using the clutch at all), got to listen to all the chatter on the CB radio, and got to visit several truck stops along the route. As an extra plus, I got to look at the very nice scenery that included mountains, forests, and farms, all with a fresh coating of snow and some ice.

We saw a number of accidents along the route: five or six trucks jackknifed, a couple of them serious, and maybe a dozen or so cars in the ditch or median, none serious. There were a couple of fender benders, including one where a pickup camper was partially ripped open by the damage. Of course, every accident had the obligatory traffic tie-up. We were stopped a number of times, but we would each just pick up a book and start reading. A few accidents were all cleaned up by the time we got to the site, so we couldn't tell what happened. When we got back to Maryland and were driving on local highways, the instructor was merging on to a highway from the on-ramp, just as a snow plow was passing by, plowing the shoulder of the highway. The snow plow threw a big curtain of slush up over the cab and windshield, which was very startling—for an instant, we didn't know what the heck was happening!

I enjoyed the trip very much, and was glad that I went, even though I didn't get to do very much driving. All in all, it was an interesting and exciting little mini-adventure!

On Friday (the day after I returned from the trip), we didn't go into class until evening, since it was time for our night drive. Every class gets one night drive, just to get a little experience. The road in our industrial park had never been plowed and was very icy. Our truck got stuck for a short time, even after locking the differential for "eight-wheel drive". We had to back up and get a running start, and we finally got out O.K. We each drove the MVA course once. It was quite different driving a truck at night, since it was harder to see things in the mirrors, especially the rear of the trailer to make sure your tires didn't hit the curb when making turns. Nevertheless, we all did OK.

Range/Road Week 7 - 12/09/02 to 12/13/02

We are now getting down to the wire—this is test week, and I'm beginning to get a little anxious. On Monday, we had our final exams for the school. I had a surprising amount of trouble on the sight-side parallel parking. When I started doing the maneuvers for the exam, I didn't notice that the passenger side spot mirror was out of adjustment. I could see well enough to do things, so I didn't think anything of it. However, in the sight side parallel parking, that mirror becomes very important—it's the only way to see the trailer once you're "jacked" enough to make the flat mirrors useless. Once I was jacked and trying to finish up the maneuver, there was a time when I couldn't see anything, which was very distressing! At that point in the exam, it's too late to make mirror adjustments, since you can't get out of the cab or lean out the window. I crossed my fingers and finished the maneuver "blind", and luckily my setup had been good enough so I finished up OK. I mentioned to the next guy that the mirror was out of adjustment, but he didn't fix it, so he had the same difficulty. At least the next guy did adjust the mirror, so he didn't have the same problem. I got an 84 on the maneuvers, which was a little disappointing.

By Tuesday, we were beginning to get worried about Wednesday, which was to be the first day of MVA testing (when I would get tested). The weather forecast was calling for rain, sleet, and freezing rain, plus windy conditions—not a very encouraging forecast! The head instructor at the range called up MVA to ask if the testing would still take place. Sometimes MVA does postpone testing if conditions are unsafe, but they said they would not be able to make that decision until tomorrow morning. So we would continue with our schedule as planned, and hope for the best. This morning, we all worked on the range, endlessly practicing our maneuvers. We had the option to make a road trip, but I'm doing pretty well with the driving part (and the pre-trip), and need practice mostly with maneuvers (especially parallel parking). In the afternoon, we all cleaned up the tractors, to make them spiffy for test day. The school likes to make a good impression on MVA, since it can't hurt. We swept out the floors, cleaned all the windows and mirrors, wiped-down the interior, then waxed and polished the exterior.


Hey, it's Wednesday, TEST DAY!!!! Well, this is the big day, and what a day it is: rain, sleet, freezing rain, and a brisk cold, raw wind! We all reported to the range as usual and were told that testing would take place as scheduled (the roads were still not slippery). If conditions deteriorated to make driving unsafe, the remaining testing would be postponed.

Our school has two "official" driving range courses on-site, and as long as the school has at least four students to be tested, MVA will send examiners out to the school and test us on-site. If there were less than four students, the students would have to take a school truck over to MVA in Glen Burnie and use the MVA driving range. Since we had nine students, we were tested on our driving range, which was a big plus. After practicing maneuvers for so long on our range, I knew where every crack in the pavement was, and could just follow the exact same path I had been taking for weeks. But wait! It was not all as expected!

It had been raining heavily, and the storm drains for the driving range were clogged with silt and ice. There was standing water on much of the driving range, and the area where we had to do our parallel parking looked like a lake. The truck actually made a "wake" like a boat when we drove through the huge puddle. Due to the standing water, we not only couldn't see our favorite cracks in the pavement, we couldn't even see the white lines defining the parking space, which made it more difficult. We still had the cones at each end of the space, though.

I was the second student to be tested on range #2—the first student passed. I did very well on my pre-trip inspection, since I knew it very well. At one point, I leaned over to touch things on the steering axle suspension (with the truck's hood open), and wound up bumping my head into the steering shaft coupling, which was covered with gooey grease. Luckily, I was wearing my rainsuit (including the hood), so the grease spot was on my rainsuit instead of on me. But I then had to take my rainsuit off to keep from spreading the grease all over everything in the cab, so I got soaked. The poor examiner was not dressed very warmly and had a tiny umbrella that kept blowing inside-out, so he got soaked to the skin and must have been suffering. But he was very professional and very fair, although I did note that he looked like a sphinx. I would look at him while rattling off the patter, but his face was absolutely deadpan—his expression didn't give the slightest hint about anything I was saying. I probably could have said "I am checking that the wobbulator is broken and on fire", and he wouldn't have batted an eye.

As for the maneuvers, I did OK on the straight-line forward to the stop line, and straight-line backing. When I started doing the sight-side parallel parking, my brain froze up and I started to get flustered. I wound up turning the wheel the wrong way at the start of the maneuver, and had to stop and compose myself. I did the rest of the maneuvers surprisingly well (but taking the usual number of pull-ups), considering that I couldn't see the white lines for the parking spaces. The examiner came into the cab and asked me if I was ready to take the road test, so I guess I passed the maneuvers.

The road test wasn't too bad. I had trouble seeing out both side windows, since the windows would fog up even though the defroster was on full-blast. I wound up rolling down both windows so I could see the mirrors—not a nice thing to do to the poor freezing examiner, but I felt it was necessary in the interest of safety. At one point on the route we crossed a high bridge, and the cold rainy wind was blowing right through the cab. I didn't have any problems driving the course, and due to the inclement weather, traffic was fairly light. There were a couple of places where the road was looking a little shiny, as if it was starting to get icy, so I mentioned it to the examiner and slowed down. Normally, we are supposed to drive close to the speed limit (no more than five mph under), to avoid getting penalized for driving too slowly. On many of the roads today, safety dictated that I drive slower than that, but it didn't seem to cause a problem with the examiner (hard to tell, he was a sphinx). I also knew that if a student failed the road test, they stopped the test at that point, and an instructor would have to come out and drive the truck back to the range. So I was pretty sure that I didn't fail.

When we got back, the examiner gave me a very handsome certificate—I passed! The head instructor collected the certificates for safe-keeping until the very end of the course, when we would all go to MVA to get our official CDL. All the students hung out at the range for the whole day, to offer moral support to those about to be tested, and to congratulate those who passed. Despite the difficult weather, we had six students get tested this day, and everybody passed! On the second day of testing, the weather was much better. However, one of the students failed because he hit a curb while parallel parking. He got scheduled to re-take the test in a few weeks.

On Friday, we were basically all done, but we still had to come in a couple more days to accumulate the proper number of overall course hours and to take care of some final paperwork. During this time, we also got some miscellaneous lectures, including one from the head instructor advising us to "take care of our CDL—it's our tool of the trade". Don't drink and drive, don't do stupid things, because nobody will cut us any slack—we're supposed to be professionals.

Final Days - 12/16/02 to 12/18/02

Because we had a break for Thanksgiving, we had two make-up days this week, but there wasn't a whole lot to do. I don't even remember what we did on Monday. Tuesday was our last day on the range. The head instructor handed out our final grades, and I got a 96 overall, with 100% attendance. The overall grade was the average of five separate grades: classroom (98), yard maneuvers (87), road trips (97), pre-trip inspections (100), and coupling/uncoupling (100). I felt proud that I had completed the course, and that I did as well as I did. I could remember, back before the course started, wondering if I would even be able to handle a big rig, and now I had my answer—"yes". It seemed like we had been going to school forever, but at the same time, it seemed so short. I would miss the camaraderie of hanging out with my fellow students, and the wise counsel of the very helpful instructors. Believe it or not, I would even miss getting up at 5:00 in the morning—it was a good exercise in self-discipline!

The instructor also handed out the MVA certificates we received after passing our official MVA test. We went over to the MVA office to trade them in and get our official Class A CDL in return. On the way, I stopped at an Office Depot and made a color copy of the certificate—the copy looked even better than the original, except the official seal didn't appear in the copy.

On Wednesday morning, we had one more official act, to meet with the program director who ran the truck driving school. He handed out our graduation certificates (suitable for framing, of course); I and one other student also got perfect attendance certificates. He then spent a while giving us many names and phone numbers of trucking companies that had contacted the school looking for drivers. Most of the other students were trying to get local driving jobs, but I'm looking for an OTR job. I have sent in several job applications, and have been talking to some people, but I still don't have anything definite lined up.

All of that is still in the future, and one thing about the future—no one knows what it will bring. But that's what keeps life interesting—anything can happen! I'm still quite "gung-ho" about my new truck driving career, but so far, I have only completed "step one". There are many more steps ahead, and hopefully many interesting and exciting experiences. Stay tuned, I'm sure I'll have more to say in part two of this saga!

Regards,

John
Baltimore, MD

(P.S. If you want to contact me, my email address is johnsantic at gmail.com.)

Comments and Observations

I'm not going to let you off that easy—I still have more things to say! (Maybe my CB handle should be "Windbag"). I have collected a list of observations and comments about my truck driving experiences so far. As a newbie, all of these experiences are brand new, and I'm trying to write down the important things I learned, what I thought was hard, what was easy, what I liked/disliked, etc. Of course, these are all my own personal opinions, so as they say, "your mileage may vary".

Important Things I Learned

What I Thought Was Hard

What I Thought Was Easy

What I Liked About The Experience

What I Didn't Like

My Concerns For The Future

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