“I tell my students to be precise in everything they do - from their pre-trip inspections, to hooking up their airlines, making sure all their lights are working - and be careful to see that everything is in order before getting on the road. That saves us from a lot of difficulties.” -Donald Turkelson of Battle Creek, Mich. - truck driver, former instructor, and winner of Arrow Truck Sales‘ 2008 “Back On The Road” contest
It‘s no wonder that precision, discipline, attention to detail, and resilience are deeply ingrained in Don Turkelson, as he served in the U.S. Army for 28 years - 21 on active duty and seven in the reserves - retiring at the rank of Lt. Colonel.
Yet several other traits stand out as well, ones stemming from his service as a military chaplain - patience, tolerance, understanding, and not a little bit of humor (his trucking “handle” is Bald Eagle - a wry reference to his rank in the U.S. Army and lack of hair). It‘s all of those character hallmarks combined that enabled him to go from novice driver to truck driver instructor over the course of his 11 year trucking career.
(Truck driver Don Turkelson with his Volvo tractor and trusty companion Shadow. And "Shadow" is an appropriate name for Turkelson's canine partner, for he never leaves his side -- in or out of the truck.)
Turkelson boils his trucking philosophy down to one single word: safety. If there‘s one thing above all others he's tried to drill into his students over the years - indeed, the single most important mantra he lives by on the road - it‘s to be a safe driver, not only in terms of tractor-trailer operation, but also in terms of extending simple courtesies to others on the highway.
“Too often, for new truck drivers especially, everyone is just ‘go-go-go‘ on the highway these days,” Turkelson explained to me in a sit down interview recently, with his trusty canine Shadow by his side. “The last four or five years especially, there‘s been little courtesy on the road. It just seems the attitude between drivers is getting ugly. That shouldn‘t be. We are a brotherhood out here.”
[Don explains why safety and courtesy are vital attribute for truck drivers today in the clip below.]
Many truckers might think that trying to change attitudes about safety and courtesy on the road today is just too difficult - too big a mountain to climb. Turkelson doesn‘t believe that‘s so - largely because he‘s used to adversity. He didn‘t drop out when the instructors at Lansing Community College relentlessly taught him how to shift gears back in 1997 (“I shifted bad enough to make a preacher swear,” Turkelson told me). He didn‘t give up as he moved from truck driver to commercial bus operator and back to trucker as he searched for the right job with the right benefits.
Not even after he got shot and left for dead.
On March 19, 2002, in a drop lot at 1:30 a.m. switching out trailers, Turkelson noticed one his airlines had become disconnected. Putting down his paperwork, he got out of the cab to check on it - and came face to face with a man in a ski mask and a pistol, trying to steal his truck. Turkelson refused, tried slipping back into the cab - then the man shot him in the leg. The bullet hit a Swiss army knife and screwdriver in Turkelson‘s pocket, shattering into a million metal fragments and forcing the knife and screwdriver out of the other side of his leg. His attacker fled, disappearing into the night.
Somehow, Turkelson managed to drive his truck to the guard shack by the drop yard‘s gate, where the security officer called an ambulance and the police - which both took 20 minutes to arrive. “We were completely exposed,” Turkelson recalled - his military mind instantly analyzing the situation. “If that man returned, we would‘ve had no chance.”
(Shadow is not just a friendly dog -- he's helped Turkelson overcome the trauma of the shooting and get back to driving a truck for a living, a profession he truely loves.)
Though he recovered after surgery and the intense physical therapy sessions that followed some two to three times a week for four months, the police investigation of the shooting proved almost as ugly as the event itself. “For a time they believed it was self-inflicted,” Turkelson said. “That trauma was almost as bad as the shooting.”
He also stayed off the road for several years, despite therapy, as Turkelson found he had “just too much fear in my heart” to get into a truck at night. But by 2004, he‘d had enough. “I wasn‘t going to let this man take my livelihood away,” he said.
Not only did he restart his career, driving just part time ease himself back in the swing of things, Lansing Community College brought him on board as a full-time driver instructor, allowing him to directly dispense the results of his experience to new drivers. “You cannot take safety for granted,” Turkelson said. “When you are out on the road driving 64,000 miles a year, you have to do all you can to minimize the chance of causing an accident.”
(Turkelson is a huge believer in the nitty-gritty of safe driving practices -- slowing down to 10 miles an hour when entering truckstops, braking before a turn then accelerating through it, etc. -- as to his mind focusing on the little details adds up to better driving overall.)
Some of the tips he shared with his students, and continues to share with others today, are as follows:
Be a professional - Approach driving with the same level of professionalism you would any other job. This means obeying all the normal traffic laws and staying courteous behind the wheel.
Stay alert - Constantly check your mirrors and be aware of the flow of traffic around you and pay special attention when entering or exiting the highway., as well as when changing lanes.
Know your route - Pre-planning your route can help you avoid difficult intersection and turns. Find the best course using free online services like MapQuest, Google Maps, and electronic navigation and routing devices.
Maintain a safe speed and following distance - A fully loaded tractor-trailer traveling 55 miles per hour takes almost 500 feet to come to a complete stop. Maintaining a safe following distance can help offset the amount of road needed to avoid a collision. Keep about four seconds of distance per 25 miles per hour between you and the vehicle in front of you.
Take a break - A good way to stay alert at the wheel is to take short breaks every three hours. A quick stretch and jog around the truck will perk you up for the next leg of the journey. This provides various health benefits as well.
“Every few hours, I take a break and go for a short walk with my dog, Shadow. It gets my blood flowing again and helps me stay focused and alert while driving,” he noted. “If you do all you can to stay safe behind the wheel, there is no reason why you can‘t have a clean safety record.”
Turkelson‘s story also proves an adage I strongly believe in: “Good things happen to good people.” He entered Arrow‘s Back On The Road contest this year and won, receiving: a tricked out 2005 VNL 670 tractor donated by Volvo Trucks North America; a one-year work agreement with Coralville, Iowa-based carrier Heartland Express; a three-year, 300,000 mile warranty courtesy of National Truck Protection (NTP); insurance from the Owner Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA); business consulting and financial tools courtesy of ATBS; and tires from Michelin.
“Donald has an amazing story to tell and a great spirit,” said Carl Heikel, Arrow‘s president and CEO. “Arrow is proud to give him the opportunity to get back on the road with a quality truck from Volvo and a job from Heartland Express.”
“It‘s a dream come true for me,” Turkelson told me. “I am just so thankful I did this, becoming a truck driver. I love being on the highway; the freedom of it, like the pioneers of the past. There‘s no one looking over your shoulder, which also means the responsibility is on you and you alone to provide quality, on-time, and above all safe delivery of goods. In this job, you always know you‘ve done a good days work.”