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KUNR Public Radio is a proud partner in the Mountain West News Bureau, a partnership of public media stations that serve Nevada, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming. The mission is to tell stories about the people, places and issues of the Mountain West.

State Trucking Competitions Seek To Find Safest Drivers

Noah Glick
A competitor lines up its drive tires to get as close to the cones as possible during the annual Nevada Truck Driving Championship.

Driving in the Mountain West can sometimes be a little hairy. Curvy mountain roads with steep inclines and declines, plus heavy snow and hail in the winter can make roads dangerous. Now, imagine doing it in an 80-foot long, 80,000-pound eighteen-wheeler. You're going to need more than Drivers' Ed.

The trucking industry knows that well, and every year it puts on a competition pitting truck drivers against each other to see who has the skills to be the safest on any road.

The Mountain West News Bureau's Noah Glick stopped by a competition in our region to learn more.

If you're like me, you hear the words "truck competition" and you instantly think monster trucks flying off ramps and through flames. Well, think again.

Compared to my imagination, the Nevada Truck Driving Championship is a pretty timid affair, although event organizer Kim Yaeger might disagree.

"It's exciting," she says. "It's loud."

This day isn't really about being exciting, though. Yaeger says it's about this.

"To increase safety and recognition of the industry, and how important safety is to us."

Credit Noah Glick
A rack of spare tires sit to the side of the course.

Before the competition, Yaeger takes me around in her golf cart to get a sense of the course. There are a series of bright orange cones spread around the track. Drivers have to get their tires as close to the cones as possible.

"Trucks will come here, and they have to line their tire up," Yaeger says. "The closer they get to the cone, the more points they get."

Drivers also have a backing challenge, where they get one shot to back their truck into a simulated wooden dock. I see one competitor making it look easy. He backs his truck perfectly, and then continues to back into the dock. So, it's not so easy after all. That nets him zero points.

The back of the truck needs to end up 18 inches away from the dock or closer--and that's hard for a driver who's in a cab at the front of a very long vehicle.

"When you're 60 feet away looking at it, 18 inches is awfully small," says Timothy Melody. He's one of the judges and a road team captain of America's Road Team, an outreach program of the American Trucking Association. Melody says each event and obstacle is testing the drivers' ability on one thing specficially. In the case of the cones, it's about...

"Knowing the placement of your vehicle on the highway," he says. "And this just tests that ability."

You've got to be good to even make it into this competition. To qualify, drivers must meet certain requirements, including being accident-free on the road for at least a year.

Melody takes me into the cab of a sleeper truck to show me what the course looks like to a driver.

"Take a breath before you decide to go out on the course, so you're nice and calm. And away we go."

Those same cones I watched during my ride in the golf cart can't be seen from way up here in the cab of an eighteen-wheeler. In fact, it's kind of hard to see anything on the ground, let alone try to navigate through the course.

Credit Noah Glick
Todd Schwenk (left) judges one competitor as he inspects all facets of his truck to find any issues.

But it isn't just the driving that can throw off competitors. There's also a written test and a pre-trip inspection. Todd Schwenk is the regional safety manager for Old Dominion Freight Lines. His job today is to create problems on all the trucks for competitors to find during their pre-trip inspection.

"Low air pressure in a tire. Is the vehicle sound? Are all the connections, all the lights working right?" Schwenk asks. "We're looking for people, before they take their vehicle out on the road, have done inspection to make sure it's road-worthy and they're compliant with the law."

Throughout the day, drivers are scored on each leg of the competition. And they can be deducted points for breaking safety rules, like not buckling their seat belts.

Eric Flick has been a truck driver for almost three decades.

"Truckers on the road are some of the safest drivers, as far as training goes on the highway," he says. "We have the best accident rate of all vehicles on the road."

He's got a point. According to the Department of Transportation, large trucks made up just 6.5 percent of all vehicle crashes in 2016.

Once late afternoon hits, it's time to hand out awards to all the winners. There are various categories and trophies, including the Grand Champion, the highest point getter across all three events, regardless of category.

The announcer for today's event gets on the loudspeaker.

"Highest scores of all three together is the grand champion," he says. "Someone who's already been up here. Some of you know. Eric Flick from FedEx Freight."

Flick is going to nationals in Pittsburgh as Nevada's Grand Champion.

"The Grand Champion is like icing on the cake," Flick says. "It's my first one, so very happy."

Flick says he'll be spending his weekends practicing. And his trip to Pittsburgh to compete will be a family vacation as well.

Credit Noah Glick
Eric Flick (left) shows off his Grand Champion trophy, along with Timothy Melody (center) and Dee Sova, America Road Team Captains with the American Trucking Association.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.

Copyright 2019 KUNR. For more, visit kunr.org.