Putting 2020 into focus

Truckers confront a variety of obstacles, including the pandemic, civil unrest and dangerous weather.

December 2020/January 2021

Land Line Staff

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By Mark Schremmer, Greg Grisolano and Tyson Fisher.

Trucking has never been an easy profession, but for even the most seasoned truckers 2020 presented a ridiculous number of obstacles.

A worldwide pandemic? Check. A shortage of groceries, medical supplies and other necessities, such as toilet paper? Check. Civil unrest? Check.

Historically low freight rates? Check. Wildfires? Check. Hurricanes? Check.

Difficulties finding a place to sit down and eat or park? Check. Truckers being turned away from using restrooms at shippers or receivers? Check.

You name it, and truckers probably had to deal with it in 2020. As usually has been the case, though, truckers found a way to adapt.

“We’ve been through recessions,” said Alfred Collins Jr., an OOIDA member from Kansas City, Mo. “We’ve been through the economic boom. We’ve been through the gig economy, and the disruption craze. We either adapted or we got out of the business. It’s a lifestyle decision to become a trucker and not just a driver. If that means strapping on a hazmat suit to make deliveries, then I guess that’s what it comes down to.”

COVID-19

Since the coronavirus began to spread rapidly throughout the United States in March, truckers were counted on to provide emergency supplies and refill empty shelves of grocery stores while risking their own health.

With little knowledge of exactly how bad the virus could be, truck drivers were on the frontlines of a national emergency. Many had to alter business models as the nation adapted to a new normal that included nationwide shutdowns throughout the spring.

“We didn’t know how bad it was,” Collins said. “And it’s not just us. You still have a family to come home to. God forbid that I get something and bring it back home to my family.”

Simultaneously, truckers were hailed as heroes while also being denied places to park, use the restroom or grab a bite to eat.

In mid-March on one hand, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration recognized the role of truckers delivering needed supplies and issued the first-ever national hours-of-service emergency declaration. That gave the hero truckers the flexibility they needed to deliver. But, on the other hand, the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation announced it was closing 30 rest areas and welcome centers to the public. And many fast-food restaurants scaled their services back to drive-thru only, which meant they couldn’t accommodate truck drivers.

“The ability for truckers to be able to go out and get food is something we took for granted,” Collins said. “We used to be able to pop in to a truck stop, grab some food and go.”

Collins recalled a time in April or May when he tried to make an order at a KFC in Plainview, Texas, but they were open only in the drive-thru.

“I pleaded with the person to take my order,” he said. “That’s when I realized how much harder trucking had gotten because of the virus. It was getting harder and harder to find somewhere to get something to eat. I’ve never had to beg so much for people to take my money than I have during the pandemic.

“I’ve been refused being able to use the restroom. I’ve been refused to come in and buy food. It’s getting better now, but no one knew exactly what they were dealing with at the time.”

While every truck driver has been affected by the pandemic in one way or another, many have had to deal with the sickness itself.

As of mid-November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was reporting nearly 11.1 million cases and more than 246,000 deaths from the coronavirus in the United States. Although no definitive by-profession numbers have been released, truck drivers have undoubtedly been included to both of those totals.

For 41-year-old Anil Gharmalkar contracting COVID-19 has been a life-changing experience.

The OOIDA member from Oswego, Kan., began to feel ill in April. Since then, Gharmalkar, who said he had previously been in good health, has had multiple hospital visits and was close to death.

“They had to bring me back four or five times,” he said.

More than half a year since contracting the virus, Gharmalkar is still coping. He had to have a tracheostomy tube inserted in his neck, and as of early November it remained unclear whether or not he would ever be able to have it removed.

“I still have some coughing and breathing issues,” he said. “I can’t do anything too strenuous. A positive outcome would be if they’re able to remove the trach and I’m able to walk up a flight of stairs on my own.”

When Gharmalkar talked to Land Line in early November, he said doctors were still monitoring to see if reconstruction surgery on his throat would be possible.

Gharmalkar said he admits that he was a little lackadaisical about avoiding the virus early in the pandemic and advises others to be cautious.

“I know the odds are that it’s not going to do much, but I wouldn’t want to roll the COVID dice,” he said. “If I could go back in time and figure out how I got it, I’d do whatever I could to avoid this journey.”

Protests

Rolling roadblocks and highway protests have become part of the occupational hazards professional drivers must navigate in 2020.

Hundreds of protesters were arrested the night after Election Day, shortly after marching onto Interstate 94 in Minneapolis. They were protesting, among other things, Donald Trump’s presidency as well as police brutality and calls for action on climate change.

Just before Election Day, caravans of supporters of President Donald Trump brought traffic to a standstill in multiple states, blocking highways and bridges. Earlier this year, activists protesting police brutality shut down interstates or planned to hold marches on highways in Minneapolis and Chicago.

In October, Minnesota trucker Bogdan Vechirko, 35, was charged with one felony count of threats of violence and a gross misdemeanor count of criminal vehicle operation after nearly running into a crowd of protesters on Interstate 35W a few months before.

Vechirko was driving a tanker for Canton, Ohio-based Kenan Advantage on Sunday, May 31, when he had a dramatic encounter with about 1,000 protesters who shut down the interstate bridge to protest the death of George Floyd. Video footage showed Vechirko’s tractor coming dangerously close to the protesters before stopping. He was pulled from the cab and beaten.

When protests were in full swing last summer, some truckers opted to make changes to where and how they were running.

Several OOIDA board members, including Johanne Couture, an owner-operator from Canada, shared their experiences of navigating dangerous situations in a July 2020 article in Land Line called “Follow Your Gut.”

“No. 1, follow your gut,” Couture said. “If it doesn’t feel right, turn around. Get out of there. You don’t need to be there. Don’t be pushed, bullied and intimidated by somebody sitting in an office. You’re the captain of the ship … stay aware of what’s going on in the direction you’re heading.”

Doug Morris, OOIDA’s director of safety and security, says drivers who must travel into areas where protests or riots are occurring should try to avoid the area if at all possible. If it cannot be avoided, truckers should keep their doors locked and windows rolled up, and they should stay in the truck if at all possible.

“If you get stuck in traffic, go with the flow,” Morris said. “Don’t use the truck as a weapon or to try and force yourself through. If individuals approach your truck, stay in your vehicle. Lock your doors and don’t confront them directly. Dial 911 immediately. If you feel your life is in jeopardy or you’re going to be harmed, let the law enforcement agency know right away.”

Using violence should be a last resort, and truck drivers who carry guns must make sure they have current permits for the weapon, Morris said. It’s also wise to check on state reciprocity for any permits you may have.

Fire and rain

A major pandemic during a contentious presidential election year was bad enough on the economy. Making matters worse, Mother Nature was not kind to the trucking industry this year either.

Throughout the second half of 2020, historic weather events throughout the United States caused major highway closures in addition to the devastation to the economy, property and life. Although flooding wreaked havoc in small pockets, wildfires and hurricanes caused more widespread destruction.

High temperatures, strong winds and a drought made the 2020 wildfire season among the worst in history. California and Colorado both experienced the largest wildfires in state history, forcing truckers and other motorists to take often long alternate routes.

In California, more than 4 million acres were burned in 2020, far surpassing the five-year average of just over 800,000 acres. Five of the six largest wildfires in California history occurred in 2020. The August Complex alone burned more than 1 million acres, making it the largest fire on record in the state. The Mendocino Complex in 2018, the second-largest wildfire, burned less than half as many acres.

Up and down the state, Caltrans shut down sections of numerous highways. The problem was not limited to California on the West Coast. Oregon and Washington State also had to close several highways due to wildfires. In fact, the Oregon Department of Transportation created an entire webpage dedicated to wildfire road closures.

Colorado also had a terrible wildfire season. In August, the Grizzly Creek Fire near Glenwood Springs shut down Interstate 70 between mile markers 116 and 140 for two weeks. The Aspen Times reported that the closure was among the longest unexpected closures of the interstate in that area since that section was completed in 1992.

The two largest wildfires on record in Colorado occurred in 2020.

Cameron Peak Fire, the largest, burned more than 200,000 acres in northern Colorado. Just south of that fire, the East Troublesome Fire became the second-largest wildfire at nearly 200,000 acres.

At one point, the Cameron Peak Fire shut down a 77-mile stretch of Route 14. The reroute turned an hour and a half trip between Walden and Stove Prairie Landing into nearly three and a half hours.

Hurricane season also broke records through the Atlantic region in 2020. As of early November, 12 of the storms had reached landfall in the U.S., beating the record set in 1916, when nine named storms made landfall.

Louisiana was hit the hardest, particularly the Lake Charles area, which got hit twice. In late August, Hurricane Laura struck the area as a powerful Category 4 storm, tying the 1856 Last Island hurricane as the strongest storm to reach landfall in Louisiana. That was followed by Hurricane Delta in early October, which reached landfall as a Category 2 storm. Hurricane Zeta and Tropical Storm Cristobal hit the eastern portion of the state.

Disruptions were caused for some truckers as Interstate 10 was shut down from the Texas border to the Atchafalaya Bay after Hurricane Laura struck. All four hurricanes to hit Louisiana shut down numerous highways and temporarily closed some ports and oil refineries.

The trucking industry stepped up to the plate with relief efforts. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration issued regional emergency declarations for many of the storms that struck the Gulf Coast.

Extreme weather events have become more common over the past decade.

During a news conference, California Gov. Gavin Newsom emphasized the role of climate change in the devastating fires. The state already has the strictest emissions standards in the nation. Those will become stricter as the state government continues to seek solutions to curb wildfires.

Newsom signed an executive order requiring 100% of sales of new medium- and heavy-duty trucks in California to be zero-emission by 2045.

As of early November, Weather.com reported that Tropical Storm Theta was the record-breaking 29th storm of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season. LL

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