This is the first installment of what I hope will be a continuing feature in the magazine that takes my viewpoint through an enforcement lens to one of a driver. This edition describes my “journey” in obtaining my Class A CDL. And as I don’t particularly care for the tagline “journey,” I’ll instead use the term “adventure.”
I want to begin by saying I have always respected truck drivers. Though I’m certain over my enforcement career, some of them probably didn’t think that was the case, but it truly was. And after getting a taste of actual driving, I assure you, I respect what these men and women do every day.
So, with that, let me tell you my story. With the looming of the “ELDT,” Entry Level Driver Training requirement that went into effect Feb. 7, 2022, I obtained my Class A permit in December 2021. I did it the old-fashioned way: studying the CDL manual. I believe I had a leg up, as I enforced the CDL/FMCSR rules for 24 years, so this was not like trying to learn Latin in a couple of weeks. I studied, read the manual, and in late December 2021, obtained my Class A permit, not knowing where I would get a truck or how I would get through the actual skills/driving portion of the process. I figured I would wait until the weather warmed up before I tried to tackle the driving thing.
As my permit time limit was approaching, I made a few phone calls. I spoke to Jason Staker with Truck America Training, a CDL training school in Shepherdsville, KY. I explained that I had already obtained the permit and was desperately seeking help with the skills/driving portion of the process and asked if he thought he would be able to work with me. After some discussion, Jason agreed they would help me by giving me some basic instruction. If I could come once or twice a week to their driving range, he thought I would get enough practice to enable me to pass the skills portion. This would not be the normal training process, and some of the training would take place on Saturdays due to scheduling conflicts. Truck America Training made some concessions for me, which I appreciated.
The first instructor I trained with was Dale, aka “Big Daddy Dale.” Dale is a veteran driver with tons of experience in commercial driving. He was very curious why I wanted to get my CDL, and my answer was easy. I explained I worked for the KTA, was retired from enforcement and just basically wanted to go through the process. Chances were very slim I would drive a truck as a profession, but I just wanted to get those credentials, so I would have an idea of what a driver experiences day to day.
Without further question, Dale made it his mission to teach me how to drive a big truck. I can’t thank him enough for his time and effort in the cause.
At the beginning of my first lesson, I tried very much to be humble but not completely green. They explained the in-cab and pre-trip were the two things where students usually had difficulty. I explained my background and started to show some of my expertise with naming the components, and they seemed a “little” impressed. Well, I know the difference between a brake chamber and a mud flap, and I was also aware the fifth wheel was not the spare! So began the instruction with straight line backing, offset backing, and parallel parking. I must say this: Truck America Training has its instruction down to a science, especially for those who have never been around a truck before. They were teaching people from all backgrounds to drive a truck, and most people did not have backgrounds within the trucking industry.
I began the driving instruction in March. I would just work out a day of that week best for all involved and make the trip to Shepherdsville to practice. When Dale was not available, Eddie would give me pointers and help me get the truck where it needed to be. Again, I never dreamed I would be trying to parallel park a 48’ foot trailer. In fact, I would have put good money on the distinct possibility of never being able to parallel park a big truck, but sure enough, I put it in the space several times after some practice, and several trial runs. Did I mention that was after a lot of practice?
On my second trip, we did some practice runs of the skills test, backing, parking, in-cab, and pre-trip inspections. I didn’t do too bad. The instructor said I needed to study as my knowledge was there, but my verbiage wasn’t in line with their curriculum. I mean, this is what they do, day in and day out, so I would learn their way. I practiced according to their procedures, and things began to click. On my second Saturday, Dale said, “Well, we’ll have to take a ride,” meaning we were going to go out on the road with live traffic. To clarify, I usually do not get nervous, but this was a new experience I was not exactly sure about. It was clear that this would not be the same as pulling a car trailer behind my F-150. We did all our in-cab/pre-trip stuff, and out to the road we went. I figured we would stay close to Shepherdsville, which would be a short 20 to 30-minute trip. As we neared the ramp for I-65, I was instructed to take the ramp and head south on the Interstate. My response? “We’re going onto arguably the busiest interstate in Kentucky?” Instructor Dale responded, “Trial by fire, brother, trial by fire.”
Up until that point, I had never driven a truck of this size. Over my career, I might have moved a truck from the inspection barn to the parking lot due to the driver being incapacitated, but I never moved the truck out of first gear. And it would have been within a somewhat controlled environment. I’m not admitting to anything, but back then, cameras were not widespread like they are now. Was it legal? Probably not, but we were trying to save the carrier $1,000 to $1,200 for a wrecker to pull the truck out of the inspection barn 300 feet into the parking lot! Again, this was 20+ years ago, so I’m pretty sure if that had occurred, I would now be well beyond the statute of limitations for any transgression. Wink-wink.
On to I-65 we go, the instructor confident; me, not so much. What had I gotten myself into? This was real, and it took all of about 60 seconds to realize a professional truck driver is a very skilled individual. I mean, there are a ton of things to remember. Your speed, distance to the car in front of you, the car in the lane next to you; check your mirrors, the roadway; check your mirrors, construction, motorcyclist; check your mirrors, shifting gears (on which I will elaborate later), watch your speed, check the gauges, watch the trailer placement in the lane, and check your mirrors again. Talk about wash, rinse, and repeat; this is it, in a big truck, and this was just a practice drive with no freight and really no time pressure.
The shifting! Ha! I have always considered myself a “car guy” and was confident about driving a manual transmission truck. Boy, that was a mistake. I did not realize the transmission in a truck is not synchronized like that of a car. Most seriously, that was probably the hardest lesson. Double clutching, both upshifting and especially downshifting, is like a ballet lesson. I’m a terrible dancer. No, that is not exactly true; I can’t dance at all. Now, I can drive a stick shift car with the best of them, but double-clutching a ten-speed was a bit more difficult than I had ever imagined. With guidance from my instructor, I was getting it, but it was humbling.
What I thought would be a short, quick drive ended up being a four-hour round trip, down the interstate in traffic, to Hodgenville, then over to Fort Knox, and finally back north to Louisville.
My instructor was brave. The only difference between a 7-year-old and me at this point was merely the gray in my hair. I grew up with “Smokey and the Bandit,” “BJ & the Bear,” “Convoy,” and “Movin On.” If you are not familiar with any of those references, there is nothing wrong with you; it just means you were most likely born after 1980.
Just to prove that I am a humble, down-to-earth person, you’ll love this next part. On one Thursday, Dale was not available, and after I practiced my skills on the range, another instructor, “JD,” said he would take me out for a short practice trip. I again explained my situation and even admitted I was not exactly a “gear jammer.” Oh, I could grind the gears, but clearly, I was not yet accomplished at the art of “double clutching.”
Which brings me to my funniest story to date when it comes to driving a truck. You must keep in mind this was only the second time I had driven a truck outside the confines of a parking lot in live traffic. I was doing pretty decent for only the second time out, and JD and I came to a stop sign in this industrial park. I was building my confidence with the gear shifting thing. However, upon stopping, I forgot to put the truck back into low range, and when I let out on the clutch, we were not in 5th gear, we were in 10th. It did not go well. The truck stalled, and here I am trying to keep it rolling, turn it without hitting anything, and JD says, “Go ahead and start it.” Well, it was, of course, a natural reaction, and I was already ahead of his instruction. The only problem was, the seat belt tensioner had already locked due to the slight downgrade, and I could not lean far enough forward to reach the key. I wish there were a video of this incident because it must have looked hilarious.
My instructor is telling me to restart the truck, and I’m saying, “I can’t!” He is asking, “What do you mean? Just start the truck.” And again, I cannot reach the key because of the seatbelt tensioner. Finally, I unbuckled it at an extremely low speed to reach the darn key and explained what had happened. For the record, I did get the truck restarted and back in gear before we stopped forward motion, and I did not hit anything. That should count for something! We both laughed and went on like it was just another day. I am certain I was not the first student to stall the truck during instruction, but likely the first that couldn’t reach the key because of the seatbelt! JD was an excellent instructor, and even with my novice shifting, he put me at ease and was very reassuring.
So, after a truly brief time of actual driving on the road and not much more on the range, Jason came to me and said, “We might have a problem with your test date.” He explained they may not have enough trucks available for the date in question and asked if I could change my test date. I made another call to see if any other dates were available. Lucky for me, there was a cancellation for the following day. I took it hoping to get this testing thing out of the way. Armed with limited experience, as happens with every new commercial driver, I took the CDL skills test.
Barely, but according to everyone, “a pass” is “a pass,” whether it is horseshoes, hand grenades, or CDL tests!
The main reason for this “semi-humorous” story (get it? “semi-humorous”), is this: I wanted to see the process from the other side. I wanted to feel what it was like to drive a big truck. I cannot emphasize enough what you already know: what these drivers do every day and what they put up with regarding all the traffic, construction, and other “non-driving” individuals on the road.
With my adventure, I reinforced a few things I already knew but had never experienced. The first: we should not forget this is a tough job, and driving a truck cannot be taken lightly. Things can change in less than an instant, and the consequences could be catastrophic. Secondly, I cannot express my respect for the men and women who drive professionally every day. You rock! Thanks for doing what you do.
Lastly, I would like to thank Jason Staker and all the instructors at Truck America Training for being so friendly and helpful. I could not have accomplished this adventure without your help.
Until next time from “Under the Truck to Behind the Wheel.”
Tristan Truesdell is the Staff Assistant for the KTA and is a retired Captain from the Kentucky State Police with 24 years of CMV enforcement experience.