With driver turnover remaining steady and high, Jimmy Howard is an anachronism. He drove for over 43 years, all of it at one company: UPS. He logged over 6 million accident-free miles and just retired at age 66. We talked with Howard about why he stayed with UPS for his entire career, how the industry has changed, and what advice he has for other drivers especially those starting their careers.
Fleet Owner: Where did your driving career begin?
Howard: I joined UPS when I was 22 years old in 1975. I started in the package cars; that's the brown delivery trucks. You had to have at least a year of safe driving with them and then you signed what they called a “feeder list” to drive a larger truck.
UPS is a little bit different; they don't call them tractor trailers, they call them feeder units, but they're tractor trailers. I signed the list but I had absolutely no experience in driving that kind of truck. The company trained me. I went through an extensive training course and received my Class A license. It wasn't called a CDL back then. You passed that and a management person rode with you for about two weeks, and then they turned you loose on your own.
FO: Why move from package delivery to OTR?
Howard: It was easier, paid better and you could get different hours. Driving a package car is a rough job. It's a lot of work, an old man can't do it [and I wanted to drive as a career until I retired].
FO: Did you have the same route for all those years?
Howard: Oh, no. We bid runs once a year and you bid by your seniority. Of course, for my first year I didn't get the bid because I didn't have seniority so I became a “floater” and went everywhere. When I finally got a bid, it was at night and I did that for probably two years and then I got an a.m. run at 3 in the morning which was really good for me because I had two kids at home and I could still coach baseball in the afternoon. I bid different routes every year. I'd go somewhere different. If I liked a route, I'd stay on it several years. Before I retired, my route was from Atlanta to Fulton, MS. It's out the I-22 corridor. I turn and come back the same day. I started at 6 in the morning, left by 6:30 and I was back by 3:30 in the afternoon. You're home every night with UPS, unless you are part of a sleeper team. You may be gone three or four days, but basically 99% of our work is turnarounds. We are there and back in the same day.
FO: How were you able to log 43 years of accident-free driving?
Howard: I believe it's because of the training that I got at UPS. UPS has what they call the “Five Seeing Habits.” Aim high in steering. Get the big picture. Keep your eyes moving. Leave yourself an out. Make sure they see you. There's a paragraph that goes under each one of these and it's called “depth of knowledge.” You have to know every one of these points. They drill it into your head. It's posted everywhere and when a management person rides with you, they expect you to know these five seeing habits inside and out. You think about them all the time until it becomes instinct.
I also came up with my own. I call them the three C's: Caution. Courtesy. Common sense. The last one, common sense should be underlined. You're driving an 80,000-pound rocket, a missile is really what you're sitting on, and you can't do that if you don't have some kind of common sense.
FO: What changes have you seen during your career?
Howard: For one thing, road sign improvements. I don't think people even notice road signs, particularly construction signs. You know that there's a problem up ahead, and they're giving you plenty of warning, but I don't think people realize it. They just run up in the traffic, run around people.
There are other changes that I've seen. Positive ones. Equipment is cleaner for the environment. Back in the day, every truck had big black smoke coming from the stack. That's a good change.
Traffic-wise, there are so many more people on the road, more and more trucks, and in my opinion, people just don't care anymore. That's one reason I retired. I loved my job and I loved driving, I really did, but I just couldn't take it anymore. There are so many people on the road and you can tell by their attitude that they just don't care. And at some point, you have to care when you're behind the wheel. In the category of not caring I include distracted driving like being on your phone or by anything else in your vehicle. If you're holding a phone or you're texting then you don't care about anyone on the road but yourself.
FO: What changes have you seen in other truck drivers?
Howard: I think most of the professional-type drivers are gone. I don't want to be down on anyone but a lot of professionalism in driving is gone. I don't know if they're not getting the correct training or they're driving just to get a paycheck. I enjoyed the paycheck, don't get me wrong, but I enjoyed what I was doing also. I think they've dumbed down the trucks so much that you don't have to think anymore.
I don't even know if they make a standard shift anymore — unless you order it — but most trucks have automatic transmissions, power windows, power everything. I think it leads to a sense [for some drivers] that they're too 'secure' in the job. That might not be the right word but that's the way I see it; they get up in the seat and think, “I got this.”
Too many drivers are overconfident to the point of being cocky. You have to be confident when you're in the seat, but not to the point where you're like “Hey man, I'm better than everybody else; I know how to do this.” That's when you're going to fail. I promise you.
Another thing that's changed is food on the road. The fast-food industry is killing truck drivers. It used to be that you'd go to a truck stop and have a family meal. You had vegetables, meat, a good cooked meal. Now it's all fast food. Drivers run in, get that, jump back in the truck and eat when they're driving down the road. That can't be very healthy.
The other thing about being a professional driver is how you dress. At UPS we wore a uniform and had to be well groomed. When you went to a truck stop, you looked good. You commanded respect. Now, I see guys in flip-flops and wearing pajamas. Come on man; you're driving that truck with flip-flops on. Really?