For Jeff C. Bartram of Westminster, driving is more than a convenient way to get around -- it's a profession.

"We're not just out hereon a Saturday afternoon cruise," said Bartram, 33, a tractor-trailerdriver for Giant Food. "I'm in my office."

But Bartram said most people picture truck drivers as "beer-drinking rednecks" rather than professionals at work.

"The perception of truck drivers is really going downhill," he said. "That's why thesesafe-driving championships are so important."

Bartram is referring to the annual Maryland Safe Truck Driving Championships, in which he drove off with a first-place finish in the five-axle, tractor-tank trailer category.

More than 90 drivers and 300 spectators from across the state went to the State Fairgrounds in Timonium June 8 for the competition, sponsored by the Safety Management Council of the Maryland Motor Truck Association.

"It puts a focus on the importance of truck safety," said J. Alan White, a spokesman for the non-profit organization that represents nearly 1,000 state trucking companies andbusinesses that operate trucks.

During the almost eight-hour competition, drivers were tested on their knowledge of safety procedures and mechanical aspects of the vehicles, and completed an obstacle course to gauge their parking, backing, stopping and turning skills. Drivers'

attitudes toward their jobs also were a factor in the results.

John H. Chamberlain, a veteran of the competition with seven previous wins as a Giant Food driver, brought home another first-place award this year in the five-axle, tractor-semitrailer class.

The 52-year-old Westminster resident has racked up four Driver of the Yearawards from various trucking groups. One -- a 1985 national honor bythe American Truck Association -- was presented by then-Vice President George Bush.

And in May, Chamberlain, who has been

a professional trucker for 32 years, was inducted into the National Private Truck Council/Trailmobile Driver Hall of Fame.

"It's in the blood, Ireckon," he said of his accomplishments. "I feel super great."

Chamberlain and Bartram, as well as five other class winners, are now eligible for the national championships, which will take place in Minneapolis in August.

"I'm gonna go back and try it one more time," said Chamberlain, who has placed as high as eighth in his seven previous attempts at the national title. "Maybe this'll be the time."

While both men are proud to represent their company and the state in the national competition and are eager to come out on top, they agreed that there's more to the competition than winning.

"It's to show people that (truckers) do care," said Bartram, who has logged nearly 675,000 accident-free miles. "The only real responsibility you have isto the general public."

Bartram, who drives a 2-to-10 a.m. shift,said it is not unusual during those hours to see drunken drivers andpeople falling asleep at the wheel.

"I have personally seen cars run off the road," he said.

One man, apparently trying to commit suicide, ran in front of the oncoming truck, causing Bartram to swervealmost into the median.

"That's just a daily deal," Bartram said."As a professional driver, you can't let these things bother you.

"You have to accept the faults of other drivers . . . and continue to drive regular," he

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said. "You have to anticipate what these people are going to do."

Amid the traffic and construction on the roads, there is no room for error, Bartram said.

"We don't have the luxury that a lot of people have when they make mistakes on the job," he said. "If I get a momentary lapse on the highway, I don't get a second chance."

The public should look at truckers in a different light, Chamberlain said.

"We need a proper attitude, and we wouldn't have these problems," he said. "Let's share the road together."

"We have some bad truck drivers," Chamberlain admitted. "You have people whodon't take enough time. Their mind is not driving -- they're just out there."

But, Bartram said, "there's a lot of good drivers out there. I'm not a

standout; I'm just one of many."

The organizers and participants in the safe-driving competition want to recognize those drivers.

"People enjoy being acknowledged for their performance," said William R. Johnson, Giant Food's corporate fleet safety officer. "We're anxious to see (good drivers) get that recognition."

Giant Food has plenty of drivers to honor. Ron Kirchner, a company driver from Reisterstown, won the title of grand champion for the secondconsecutive year.

The area food store chain is not alone, however. Southern States Cooperative received the team champions award.

Other Carroll County competitors include: Robert Blizzard, Bond Transfer Co.; Douglas Gouge, Roadway Express; David Hill, Consolidated Freightways; George Tucker, Carroll County Foods; and Eugene White, Southern States Cooperative.

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