I am an outlaw.
I was born an outlaw’s son.
On the highway is my legacy.
On the highway I will run. (“Outlaw Man”: Desperado. The Eagles. Asylum Records: 1973)
America’s highways are dangerous places. The highways can be the preferred home and place of business for criminals: muggers, robbers, hijackers, and all manner of opportunistic ne’er-do-wells. Because over-the-road (OTR) truck drivers live and work on highways, they’ll inevitably find themselves in potentially dangerous situations.
If drivers don’t exercise care and take specific precautions, they might get mugged, beaten, robbed, and/or killed. Truck driving isn’t like entering a combat zone, but safety is important. This article will discuss safety precautions and what measures are available to truck drivers to protect themselves.
Safe Parking and Jason’s Law
Let’s look at the well-known case of New York-based OTR trucker Jason Rivenburg, which spurred new legislation regarding truck stops.
Jason was a family man. His wife was expecting twins. In March 2009, he took his break in an abandoned gas station on I-26, 30 miles east of Columbia, SC.
He’d asked if it was safe and heard that it was. He’d heard wrong.
Convicted criminal Willie Pelzer, then 22, was on parole, lurking nearby, and looking for someone to rob. Pelzer shot and killed Rivenburg and stole seven dollars.
Riverburg’s murder created tragedy for his family, but it also called attention to a serious, ongoing issue among OTR truck drivers: the shortage of safe parking that results in unsafe parking.
This case motivated the U.S. Congress to add Jason’s Law to the $105 billion Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), which President Barack Obama signed into law in July 2012.
Jason’s Law states:
It is the sense of Congress that it is a national priority to address projects under this section for the shortage of long-term parking for commercial motor vehicles on the National Highway System to improve the safety of motorized and nonmotorized users and for commercial motor vehicle operators.
Jason’s Law allocated funding to construct, improve, and provide parking for OTR truckers at truck stops, weigh stations, and rest areas. Concerned truckers can contact their local representatives to ensure they follow through with additional safe parking for OTR truck drivers.
Still, highways naturally attract criminals.
According to a New York Times story, “Highway patrol officers, criminologists, district attorneys and other experts say more and more criminals are discovering that highways provide an abundant source of potential victims and an easy avenue of escape for crimes from car theft and armed robbery to rape and murder.”
It’s complicated because even well-lighted truck stops can harbor outlaw troublemakers. Also, the vast majority of OTR truck drivers are good people, but a few are bad eggs. As a result, certain precautions are necessary to ensure truck driver safety.
Truck driver safety starts with trip planning. Locate safe parking along your route. If possible, schedule your trip so you’ll arrive early enough to quickly and easily find safe parking.
Give yourself enough logbook-time to park. Don’t wait until you have 15 minutes left and then try to find a parking spot.
Obviously, weigh stations (“chicken coops”) that are open 24/7 are the safest for parking. You’ll just have to ask to make sure the DOT personnel don’t mind and will let you use their bathrooms. Also, be forewarned: they might inspect your logs, your paperwork, and/or the whole truck.
If you leave the truck, shut it off, take the keys, and bring your cell phone. Some means of self-protection—mace, pepper spray, a taser, a crowbar, a billy club or small baseball bat, or a metal flashlight—is a good idea.
Some truckers can carry firearms, but it can get complicated. There’s no federal law that prohibits you from carrying across state lines for lawful purposes, but each state has its own regulations and permits. It’s your responsibility to know the rules in each state along your route.
Educate yourself about each state’s laws, and make sure your employer allows its drivers to carry. Trucking companies care about truck driver safety, but many don’t allow their drivers to have guns in their trucks.
Use Common Sense
Common sense may be your best protection. As an OTR trucker driver, you’re already vulnerable to criminals. Don’t make it worse. Don’t park in dark, deserted lots.
When walking around customers’ lots or truck stops day or night, keep your eyes open and pay attention. At night, park near the front in a well-lighted area if possible. Keep doors locked, windows closed, and cell phone charged.
Rows of parked big rigs provide numerous opportunities for an ambush. Predators can come from under trailers, around corners, in shadows, and on “catwalks” between cabs and trailers.
Avoid hustlers selling things, “beggars,” and “lot lizards” (truck-stop prostitutes). If you leave the truck—even for just a few seconds—bring the door key and your cell phone, and keep a sharp lookout.
Bad guys can strike at any time, but OTR truck drivers are more vulnerable late at night when it’s dark, fewer witnesses can see, and most criminals are hunting prey.
If you’re driving late night, be especially careful. It only takes a few seconds to get robbed, knocked out, shot, kidnapped, or hijacked. It could happen right at the fuel pumps.
As special note: don’t drink alcohol, use drugs, or hang out in bars or “bad parts of town” with drug dealers and other criminals. For one thing, you’re an OTR truck driver, you risk your job if you hang out in the wrong places with the wrong people. For another thing, if you keep dangerous company in dangerous places, it’s just a matter of time before something bad—unemployment, arrest, conviction, prison, injury, death—happens to you.
It’s a serious trucking-industry problem. Hijacking is a multi-billion-dollar annual business. Hijackers are well-organized professionals. They often know which trucks are carrying the high-dollar, easy-to-sell goods they want.
Sometimes hijackers want the truck, too, for use in other crimes. Some hijackers have informants at shippers, receivers, and trucking companies. Almost always, they’re experienced, armed, and dangerous criminals.
The Texas State Government’s “Truck Hijacking Prevention FactSheet” provides a comprehensive list of precautions OTR truck drivers should take to minimize the risk of being hijacked. The list is too long to include here, but basic precautions include:
1. Be aware of your freight. Watch it being loaded, if possible. Hijackers steal anything valuable, but they especially like electronics (phones, computers, televisions, appliances), cigarettes, clothing (especially sneakers) and alcohol. If you’re carrying these or other costly items, be careful.
Don’t tell other people, in truck stops, over the CB radio, or anywhere else, what you’re hauling. If people ask what you’re hauling, it’s a red flag; they could be hijackers. Just say, “bales of trash,” end the conversation quickly, and be on guard. For obvious reasons, don’t ask other drivers what they’re hauling.
2. Don’t risk getting lost. Plan your trip. Know your main route and alternate routes.
3. Motion is safety, and hijackers often strike close to the shipper’s location. If you’re carrying the type of freight hijackers want most, don’t stop for at least 200 miles after leaving the shipper. On city streets, keep doors locked and eyes open. Don’t stop for stranded motorists. Instead, report them to emergency professionals; have the numbers handy.
4. If you do stop, always park in a safe, well-lighted place with other people around, shut off the truck, take the keys, and lock the doors. Put a sturdy, theft-resistant seal or padlock (or both) on the trailer doors. Use a “glad-hand” lock as well. Don’t leave the truck unattended for more than a few minutes. If you’re on a dedicated run, don’t stop at the same places every night.
5. Maintain close contact with your dispatcher and inform him/her of your route, and of any changes in your route.
Remember: hijackers are armed, dangerous, professional criminals. If you mess with them, they’ll hurt or kill you. If you do get hijacked, don’t resist or try to be a hero. Just do what they say. If possible, get good descriptions and note any additional facts. Call 911 and your dispatcher as soon as you can.
Highways are natural havens for criminals, so OTR truck drivers must use caution. Parking is an issue for truck driver safety. Jason’s Law is a good start. However, OTR truck drivers must protect themselves by planning their trips, scheduling safe stops, using common sense, being aware of their surroundings, and watching out for hijackers.
If OTR truck drivers take special care to protect themselves, they will find that OTR trucking is a safe, profitable, and enjoyable profession.