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In a split second

March 7, 2011
“What counts in trucking is what happens today.” –Ralph Garcia, veteran driver for ABF Freight System My dad always summed up his experience back in the late 1950s in the U.S. Marine Corps this way: 90% utter boredom mixed together with 10% sheer ...

What counts in trucking is what happens today.” –Ralph Garcia, veteran driver for ABF Freight System

My dad always summed up his experience back in the late 1950s in the U.S. Marine Corps this way: 90% utter boredom mixed together with 10% sheer terror – with the ratio of terror much, much higher during his sojourn through what was then called officer candidate school (OCS), in no small part due to the ferocious tutelage of the drill sergeants staffing Quantico, VA.

It’s a ratio most truck drivers I’ve talked to are intimately familiar with (sans the drill sergeants, of course) as it reflects the reality of life on the road. You can drive for hundreds – if not thousands – of miles without incident … then suddenly a car swerves in front of you, or a deer jumps from the woods, or a bend in the highway proves sharper than you thought … that’s when all-out chaos ensues.

That’s why my dad always stressed to me the pure necessity of the tough training he received in the Marines, simply because – in his words – life and death as a grunt always boiled down to a matter of split seconds. And the very same can be said of truckers, too.

For example, dad said you learned to clean and load your weapon – be it a pistol, rifle, B.A.R., whatever – fast and almost purely instinctively, for the drill sergeants always emphasized (usually in a loud, booming voice) that you never had time to pause and think these things through when the bullets and bombs started flying.

For officers (my dad made Captain), this “window of time” proved even smaller, for they were told over and over that to hesitate under fire could spell death not only for them but (much more importantly) for the men under their command.

But dad also discovered a corollary to this maxim: split second decision-making can often lead to unintended split-second disasters. And he learned this lesson the hard way.

The moment came in the back of a Chinook twin-rotor helicopter, during maneuvers by the First Marine Division in the Philippines. Dad’s battalion would be airlifted to a jungle landing zone (a term called during the Vietnam years an “LZ") and secure a nearby hilltop. Sure sounded simple enough, he thought.

So there he sat, at the rear of the Chinook by the landing ramp, waiting – the chopper’s twin rotors creating a deafening cacophony of sound about him and his troopers. Then the ramp dropped open and, half blinded by the tropical sun, Dad stood up bellowing “LET’S GO!” and charged out the door.

Right into thin air, for the Chinook hadn’t landed yet.

Dad recalled he didn’t have to time to yell, curse, or do pretty much anything. One moment he was staring at the ground some 20 to 30 feet below; the next, he found himself trying to get disentangled from heavy brush.

Somehow, Dad survived the fall – even though loaded down with 80 pounds of gear – bouncing twice off earth soaked to mush by a recent tropical downpour. Everyone watching him charge out of the Chinook in mid-air expected to find him dead or crippled; instead, here stood dad, gathering up his troops and pushing off for his hilltop objective.

In recounting this story, dad always said, "nothing but the Good Lord and pure Irish luck" kept him safe from disaster that day. (However, that didn’t apply to the dressing down he got from his battalion commander over the incident. He told me it began with the immortal words, ‘So YOU are the dumb sumbitch that fell of out the #$%&* Chinook, are you,” and went downhill from there.)

But for truck driver Ralph Garcia, in a very different “split-second” case, technology got added into the mix and proved to be the saving grace for both him and another driver – a story he shared last year at the Moving the World: The Future of Freight Transportation conference, hosted by Volvo Trucks North America (VTNA), Volvo Group North America, and the American Trucking Associations (ATA) at the Swedish embassy in Washington D.C.

Running doubles from Kingman AZ to Albuquerque, NM, three times a week – usually at night – Garcia (seen at left speaking at a highway safety event) explained his route consisted of nothing but boringly flat highway miles through acre upon acre of desert, until reaching Flagstaff AZ. There, the highway climbs a 7,000 foot mountain grade – an area teaming with Elk, among other wildlife.

It’s a grade Garcia said he’s climbed and descended so many times it’s become routine – but he stressed that he never really can treat it as routine, because there’s simply no margin for error on that strip of road; a road bordered on one side by a sheer rock mountainside, while the other offers nothing but a 7,000 foot drop into the valley below.

[His approach works, too: after 30 years as a truck driver he’s accumulated more than 2.5 million accident-free miles.]

Still, Garcia’s gone up and over that stretch of road for years without incident. It held no fear for him – until one dark night in 2008, coming around one of its blind corners, he literally met his worst nightmare head on.

Stretched across the highway, blocking his path, stood a car attached to an overturned trailer. Instantly, Garcia knew he couldn’t brake his truck in time, nor would he have room to swerve on the side of the road against the rock wall. The only way out, Garcia said, was to steer towards the valley drop and hit the overturned trailer – that way his vehicle would stay on the asphalt.

So Garica slowed and aimed his truck at the trailer – the fear at the back of his mind dissipating because he knew he’d be safe, the driver of the other vehicle, still in his car, would be safe, and his load would be safe.

All of that disappeared, however, when a man stood up in front of the trailer.

Without even thinking, Garcia said he swerved out farther left to avoid the overturned trailer entirely. But he also knew in that split-second he’d probably signed his own death warrant – no way, at that sharp angle and speed, would his doubles stay upright. We’re going to roll over and right off the cliff edge, he thought – game over.

And that’s when the roll stability control system kicked it.

Garcia said he’d completely forgotten his Mack tractor came equipped with such technology, and when he swerved violently, the system cut his engine power, selectively applied the brakes, and kept his rig upright so he could maneuver it to safety off the road and onto the shoulder.

Stunned, Garcia secured his vehicle and walked back to the man now standing off the road beside his car. “The guy blurted out, ‘I thought you were going to hit me,’” Garcia recalled. “I told him bluntly, ‘somebody is praying for you, because I was going to hit you.’”

[Here's some insight on further safety enhancements Mack is making to its trucks.]

Garcia added that he’d felt the rear trailer on his rig starting to tip when the truck suddenly started “dragging:” in his words. “It kept me upright, saving my life and well as that of the other driver,” he said.

In short, technology stepped into a “split-second” moment and changed a situation that should’ve been a horrific disaster into, literally, a non-event.

“If that system wasn’t on my truck, I would never have celebrated my 30th wedding anniversary, nor walked my daughter down the aisle, nor seen my first grandchild born,” Garcia said. “In a split second, having that technology on board boiled down to saving lives.”

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