WHAT was James Starr’s secret to being named the National Tank Truck Carriers’ new William A Usher Sr Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year?
There were multiple factors: a vigilant approach to safety, the Smith System, his mentor, and kindness to others.
Starr, a certified driver instructor based at Groendyke Transport Inc’s Wichita, Kansas, terminal, was the inaugural Grand Champion of NTTC’s new award, which he received April 28 during NTTC’s 66th Annual Conference & Exhibits in Las Vegas, Nevada.
During Starr’s 42 years as a truck driver, he has accumulated 3,498,124 accident-free miles while behind the wheel of a tanker rig. In addition to his duties as a certified driver instructor, Starr was a three-time winner of Groendyke Transport’s President’s Club award and was a winner of the 1987 Terminal Efficiency Award.
He discussed how he did it and his advice for other drivers during the NTTC Tank Truck Safety & Security Council annual meeting June 3-5 in San Antonio, Texas:
On safety: “An old man told me one time, ‘You do it one mile at a time. Keep that mile safe, and then the next.’ And that’s happened over and over until three million miles. You get to thinking about that: ‘That’s a lot of miles.’ But to me, it hasn’t been that bad. I mean, you never think about how far you’ve been or how far you’re going. You’re just safer by getting there. Getting there is the #1 priority—and getting there safely. Safety is the most important thing I do. In this industry, safety has to be the most important thing. Because of the products we haul, anything can happen at any time. So you have to be pretty much ready for it.”
On the Smith System of defensive driving: “The best thing I’ve ever done is the Smith System. It ought to be taught in driving school. I met the Smith System way back before it had a name. And that’s what kept me safe. Using that defensive driving training gives you an advantage.”
On the need for safety training: “To improve this industry, all of the new drivers have to be willing to be safe. And they have to be educated to be safe. You’ve heard the old saying, ‘Monkey see, monkey do.’ That’s the way most of our drivers are. When they come on, if they have a safety-focused instructor, safety is going to be the foremost thing on their mind. You can’t just tell them to be safe. You have to tell them why they have to be safe.”
On his mentor: “Back when I first started driving, I had a mentor. This is the craziest guy you’d ever want to meet in your life, but he was one of the safest guys you’d ever want to meet. He insisted on safety. Any time you did something wrong, he was not above popping you on the knuckles just to get your attention. He used to tell me, ‘You don’t have to be shy; you can say what you want.’ And I’ll tell you something else: You can get anything you want done as long as you don’t care who gets the credit. This is what you see before you—what he made me. If you have good trainers from the beginning, you will have good employees. That training starts with one person. And that one person can make a difference through the whole training process.”
On kindness to others: “I was in training on a trip across (Interstate) 81 in Virginia. (My mentor) said, ‘Give me some money.’ I said, ‘How much money do you want?’ He said, ‘What do you have?’ I said, ‘I’ve got $50.’ He said, ‘That’ll do. There’s a lady stranded in the snow.’ He gave her the money I had and the money he had and we pushed her car to the fuel station. She had four little kids with her. We fed her and the kids and sent her on her way. We didn’t bother anyone else about it because that was just the way he taught me—to help other people. Fifteen years later, this lady came up to me and said, ‘Do you drive for Groendyke Transport?’ I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ She said, ‘Do you remember helping a lady 14, 15 years ago with little kids?’ I had forgotten about it, but I said, ‘Well, yes, ma’am.’ She said, ‘I’m that lady. I would just really like to buy you dinner.’ I said, ‘Well, ma’am, I really don’t have the time.’ I had already taken my break when she showed up. But over the years, there are a lot of things you do that you don’t meet up with again for years.”
Starr said he never even thought about trying to win the NTTC Professional Tank Truck Driver of the Year award until he received a call from Groendyke Chief Executive Officer John D Groendyke.
“I asked, ‘What in the world is the National Tank Truck Driver of the Year?’ ” Starr said. “He said, ‘It’d be an honor for you. I think you’re the perfect person for it.’ I said, ‘Whatever you want to do. You just set them up and I’ll knock them down.’ ”
Starr advanced through the process. Before the winner was announced, his wife asked him if he was nervous. When he said he wasn’t, she asked him why.
“I haul chemicals,” he told her. “I can’t afford to be nervous.”
Before he was introduced as the winner, a video blared a tribute, calling him “hero of the highway, angel of the asphalt, conquerer of the cargo.” He’s not sure he’s all of that, but he’ll take it.
“This process started 42 years ago,” he said. “This is an unintended consequence, sitting here, because I never thought I’d ever be in this position. But it’s the greatest thing that could happen to a driver. My life from 1971, when I first climbed into a truck … I just never wanted to harm anything or anybody, so I did my best to be safe. That safety taught to me way back then sticks with me, and I just keep adding to the safety process.”
He said he’s starting to feel like a celebrity.
“I didn’t understand the scope of this thing,” he said. “Every time I turned around, somebody was going, ‘Hey, James Starr, National Tank Truck Driver of the Year. Congratulations!’ It makes me feel like—I don’t know—like I accomplished something.
“This is the perfect venue to show just how safe tank truck drivers really are. We have a lot of good, safe tank truck drivers out there. When you recognize those guys with just how safe they are, they get even safer. I think this is a perfect teachable moment that I have here. This moment will last a year for me. But there is somebody out there right now at one of you guys’ terminals who will be in this position in just about a year. I am sure if they’re anything like the guys I met in Arlington or Vegas, I guarantee you will be proud. I’m glad to know there are drivers like that out there.”
The other finalists this year were:
Allen Blair, a driver with Miller Transporters Inc in Petal, Mississippi, with 3,100,000 accident-free miles over 38 years. The 2011 XL Insurance Driver of the Year, Blair mentors new drivers on safety and service as they begin their careers at Miller Transporters.
Robert Coverson, Dupré Logistics LLC in Missouri City, Texas. During 38 years and 3,000,000 accident-free miles of truck driving, he has earned a Green Fleet Elite pin and 24 individual safety performance awards. He serves on Dupré Logistics’ driver training team and accident review board.
Ronald Evans, Liquid Cargo Inc in Crown Point, Indiana. Over 16 years, he has compiled 2,000,000 accident-free miles as a tank truck driver. Evans is involved in training new and experienced drivers, helping them become more familiar with the specialized equipment and proper loading and unloading procedures
Ronald Hawkins Jr, based in Perrysburg, Ohio, for K-Limited Carrier Ltd. With 30 years and 2,000,000 accident-free miles of truck driving experience under his belt, Hawkins was an American Trucking Associations America’s Road Team Captain in 2009-2010. He serves as head certified driver trainer and certified Smith System instructor for K-Limited and conducts No-Zone demonstrations for the Toledo OH Trucking Association and the Ohio Trucking Association.
Benjamin Robbins Jr, a driver for Quality Distribution Inc based in Salem, New Jersey. A member of Quality Carriers’ High Mile Driver Club, Robbins has accumulated 4,000,000 accident-free miles over 56 years of truck driving. He trains new drivers and conducts driver road tests.
Robert Stevens, a McKenzie Tank Lines Inc driver based in Panama City, Florida. With 38 years and 4,000,000 accident-free miles of truck driving, Stevens was a winner of the President’s Club Award at C W Matthews and multiple safety awards. He currently serves on the Lead Driver Training program at McKenzie Tank Lines.
Robert Weller, a Hahn Transpor-tation Inc driver based in Monrovia, Maryland. A member of the ATA America’s Road Team in 2011-2012 and Maryland’s First Road Team, Weller has accumulated 3,300,000 accident-free miles over 39 years. Awards include ECS Driver of the Year, a first place in Hahn Transportation’s Rodeo and second at the Maryland State Rodeo. He is involved in new driver and hazardous materials training at Hahn Transportation. ♦