Safety is truckers' first road rule

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

Dowell climbs into a tanker carrying 5,600 gallons of regular-grade gasoline, 2,000 gallons of mid-grade and 447 gallons of premium. He sets his cell phone on the dashboard and his plastic coffee mug in a cup holder.

After a mechanic makes some minor repairs to the rear lights, Dowell pulls out at 12:30 a.m. and heads for his first stop, a Shell station off Route 50 near Annapolis.

The Mack truck's engine grumbles and shakes as it rolls along. It's a 30-minute trip this time of night.

Pulling a full load in a tanker feels like driving a car straight up a mountain. There is little sloshing, but the weight of the liquid sometimes causes the whole rig to jump forward a few inches at stop signs.

When he arrives at the station, Dowell slips his 60-foot rig into a narrow lane between gas pumps, alternately inching forward and backward into place. It's a task that makes parallel parking seem laughably easy.

He puts on black rubber gloves and hops out of the truck. As he flips up three lids embedded in the concrete, the strong odor of gasoline wafts out. Then, using what look like giant vacuum cleaner hoses, Dowell connects the tanker to the holes in the ground.

It's the reverse of a typical fill-up.

After "dropping the load" of gasoline, Dowell uses a 143-inch dipstick to make sure the underground tanks hold the correct amount of gasoline.

Just after 1:30 a.m., Dowell is back in Fairfield, navigating the badly potholed roads. He loads another 8,600 gallons into the tanker and heads to his second delivery, a gas station on York Road in Timonium.

Dowell repeats the process until daylight brings commuters to the roads. By then, he usually has just one more delivery before heading home.

'Just the way it is'

Although Dowell says he enjoys working nights, his wife, an administrative assistant for the Johns Hopkins University, would prefer that he work a daytime shift.

With her more traditional 9-to-5 schedule and weekends off -- Glenn is off Monday and Tuesday -- the couple has precious little time together.

Most evenings, the Dowells spend their hour together, between Linda's arrival at 5:30 p.m. and Glenn's bedtime of 6:30 p.m., talking over coffee. They rarely eat dinner together because their appetites, like most everything else in their lives, follow different cycles.

"It's not my choice," she says. "It's just the way it is."

Lately, talk about home renovations dominates their time together. Tropical Storm Isabel flooded their first floor in September.

But despite the work that needs to be done, Linda, 49, is careful not to wake her husband during his four hours of sleep. (He also naps during the afternoon while she's at work.)

"It's not unusual for me to pull out the vacuum cleaner as soon as he walks out the door," she says.

That her husband spends his nights hauling petroleum is always in the back of Linda's mind -- particularly since the I-95 accident.

"He knows exactly what he's doing," she says. "But there are other drivers on the road, and they don't always know what they're doing."

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