- Associated Press - Sunday, November 20, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Just over a year ago, the Arkansas Trucking Association named the first class of a brand new Arkansas Road Team: 12 drivers from six companies given the task of educating the public about safe driving around heavy-duty commercial vehicles.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (https://bit.ly/2gdee10 ) reports that today, the Road Team captains are busier than ever, with events and presentations almost every week and no signs of gearing down.

The program is modeled after the America’s Road Team founded by the American Trucking Associations in 1986. Companies nominate outstanding drivers that have stellar safety records for participation and agree to pay the drivers for the few days per month that they spend with the program. But, as Gary Mars, a Road Team captain and Wal-Mart Transportation driver, said: “I love doing it. I’d do it for free.”

The association’s safety program, including the Road Team, was funded by a grant through the state Highway and Transportation Department, called the Arkansas Commercial Truck Safety and Education Program.

“We had to make a commitment as a company that this is something we’re going to support,” explained Tanya Rogers, safety manager at USA Truck in Van Buren. “It does create a little bit of a problem with revenue, but I think the benefits really outweigh that.” USA Truck has two drivers on the team: April Coolidge and Tom Miller.

The Road Team captains, as the drivers are called, give safety presentations at schools and events around the state about how to safely pass tractor trailers on the roadways and how to avoid the truck drivers’ four blind spots. They also offer people the chance to sit in an 18-wheeler to see those blind spots for themselves.

Also, distracted driving and drivers texting have become central topics of Road Team presentations.

“It needs to be a big part of the presentations now because distracted driving is the No. 1 killer of 18- and 19-year-olds,” Mars said.

“While Share the Road started nationally 30 years ago talking about how to drive safely around big trucks, out of necessity we and others have evolved our program into talking as much about distracted and aggressive driving as we do talking about driving around a big truck,” explained David O’Neal, safety director at the Arkansas Trucking Association and manager of the Arkansas Road Team.

Road Team members set a cone 90 feet in front of a parked truck, so people can see just how far the vehicle will travel in one second at 55 mph. It takes three or four seconds to send a short text. The demonstration is one of the most powerful parts of the presentation, Mars said.

At presentations, sometimes the drivers cover topics other than highway safety.

“They’re ambassadors for the industry in one sense,” O’Neal said. “The majority of their time is spent talking about highway safety, but they also spread the good news of trucking to their audiences. As time permits and opportunities allow, they talk about what they do as drivers and what their industry does.”

The national team, which started with four captains in 1986, now uses between 85 and 100 of its more than 400 “reserves” at events almost every day. Drivers on the team, just as in Arkansas, not only speak at schools, but to legislators about regulatory issues, and at fairs and community events about the profession in general.

“We wanted to get out there and tell our story from a professional truck driver’s point of view. Those drivers on the road every day are obviously a more credible voice,” said Elisabeth Barna, chief operating officer and executive vice president of industry affairs at the American Trucking Associations.

Barna runs the America’s Road Team program and explained that the association does not limit or dictate what the drivers say in any capacity.

Several of the Arkansas drivers also have participated or continue to participate on the national team, and Larry Rhein of FedEx Freight was nominated for the national team this year. Decisions for participation will be made in January. Many companies, including ABF and Wal-Mart, also have their own road teams.

“I think they’re really good representatives,” said Rogers of the Arkansas Road Team. “In trying to change the image of trucking, we want to put great faces of trucking and USA Truck out there in front of people.”

All of the Road Team’s sponsoring companies report being “proud” and “honored” to have their drivers out as “ambassadors for safety on the road,” said John Smith, senior vice president of operations at FedEx Freight.

“It’s really all about saving lives,” Barna said. “And Arkansas is doing a fantastic job with their program.”

“I’m definitely going to drive more carefully now,” said Shawn Flores, a Rogers senior at Heritage High School, after seeing a presentation by Road Team captains Mars and Otto Schmeckenbecher.

As Barna put it, “I always feel like just talking to one person can save a life.”

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, https://www.arkansasonline.com

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