Champion Tank Truck Driver Urges Highway Users to Practice Courtesy

Nov. 1, 1997
NATIONAL CHAMPION tank truck driver Larry Ripley says he likes to practice what he preaches. Ripley, a driver for Matlack Inc based in Wilmington, Delaware,

NATIONAL CHAMPION tank truck driver Larry Ripley says he likes to practice what he preaches. Ripley, a driver for Matlack Inc based in Wilmington, Delaware, preaches courtesy and safe driving on the nation's roadways.

"My message to the media when I was part of America's Road Team was the same one our industry needs to keep sending: Truck drivers are concerned about safety and other people on the road. We're doing everything possible to ensure that the highways are safe for everyone," Ripley says.

Based on a safety record of more than two million miles of travel for Matlack without a reportable accident, Ripley shows that he does practice what he preaches. He joined Matlack at its Syracuse, New York, terminal in 1967. He left the company in 1968 to serve in the US Army for two years. After returning from service duty, Ripley rejoined Matlack and now has 30 years of seniority as a company driver based in Syracuse.

Ripley is Matlack's certified driver trainer at the Syracuse terminal. Like certified trainers at other Matlack terminals, Ripley earned this position by going through a rigorous selection process. Matlack certifies driver trainers who have at least three years of accident-free driving without any moving violations. The certified trainers must be good communicators, extroverts, very compliant, patient, and intelligent.

"Larry will do anything Matlack asks of him in a safe and efficient way. He's very dedicated and conscientious," says Al Relf, Matlack's Syracuse terminal manager. "He'll go out of his way to help new drivers by giving any directions or input to make sure they do their jobs safely. Obviously, he's an outstanding driver or he wouldn't be the national champion."

Besides achieving a remarkable safety record, Ripley has won numerous state and national awards at driving championships sponsored by the American Trucking Associations (ATA). The latest award is his crowning achievement so far: winning the tank truck class of the 1997 National Truck Driving Championships held August 20-23 in Minneapolis MN.

Ripley was one of eight outstanding truck drivers named in 1988 to be a member of America's Road Team, a program sponsored by the ATA. Representing truck drivers nationwide, Ripley spent several days each month traveling and speaking on behalf of the ATA.

"Misconceptions arise due to the size of tractor-trailer rigs," Ripley says. "A lot of people think of the truck driver as a bully. But our message is that drivers are professionals who are safety-oriented. We want people to respect the size of trucks and realize that truck drivers can't stop on a dime. But we don't want people to fear trucks."

Though Ripley has logged many accident-free miles as a Matlack driver, his record is not "squeaky clean," he says.

"In my early years I had a few fender-benders," Ripley says. "The big turn-around in my career started when I began competing in the ATA-sponsored truck driving championships." Ripley competed for the first time in a truck driving championship in 1978. Since then, his driving record has been clean. Practicing for and competing in the championships have helped sharpen his driving skills, he says.

He has won six championships in state competitions sponsored by the New York State Motor Truck Association, an affiliate of the ATA. He won his first state championship in 1980. To earn the 1997 national championship, Ripley scored the highest of 48 drivers in the tank truck competition. Ripley accumulated 698 points in a series of tests aimed at gauging driving skills and knowledge.

Besides taking a written test on vehicles and federal safety regulations, Ripley responded to questions in interviews with two contest judges. The judges represented trucking industry management.

"They asked what I would do if I delivered a load late to a customer through no fault of my own, and the customer would become angry," Ripley says. "I answered that I would keep smiling and nodding my head. I believe a driver should never lower his standards even when dealing with someone who is upset. Sometimes people may have problems in their personal life, and I don't get involved in that. The driver always should stay cool. I have good relations with all my customers."

Drivers were judged on how well they accomplished pre-trip inspection procedures. Ripley found several vehicle defects deliberately planted by judges-a flat tire, crossed trailer air lines, and a loose lug nut.

To show their driving skills, contestants were required to maneuver rigs through a course representing actual driving situations. Ripley was judged on how well he backed his rig to a loading dock, stopped the truck at a crosswalk, made a right turn without striking the trailer wheels on a curb, and parked along the curb.

Ripley began his driving career 35 years ago hauling raw milk in cans for a neighbor while still a high school student. He was raised on a dairy farm in Weedsport, New York.

"I've driven in every state in the nation except South Dakota," he says. "I was on a two-man team operating a sleeper cab for 21/2 years. We went from coast to coast." In the team operation, Ripley made 3,000-mile runs from Bangor, Maine, to San Diego and from Seattle to Tampa, Florida. Though long, these trips could be completed with time to spare because Matlack always allowed ample time for drivers to make deliveries, Ripley says.

"The delivery time is a commitment to our customer, and we must honor this commitment," Ripley says. "Matlack is very good about allowing extra time. For example, when I was a team driver, we were given an extra day to travel 3,000 miles to the West Coast. Running continuously at an average of 50 mph, drivers could get there in 21/2 days. But you've got to allow extra time for rest stops, coffee breaks, and refueling. We would leave on a Monday to make a Friday delivery."

Allowing plenty of time for deliveries is one of the keys to good driving, Ripley says. Another key is getting plenty of rest when not on duty. However, the most important quality of a good driver may be tolerance.

"A driver's attitude is the biggest factor in determining whether he will be a successful, safe driver," Ripley says. "You've got to be tolerant of any actions taken by car drivers and other truck drivers on the highway. The main thing is to keep your standards high and to be courteous. Courtesy goes a long way."

A tolerant attitude while driving is particularly important as the nation's highways become more congested, Ripley adds. A responsible truck driver tries to get through congested urban areas during nonpeak hours.

At 52, Ripley still enjoys his career as a driver and has no plans to retire soon. He enjoys seeing the country and meeting new people.

"I like the fact that I'm not confined, that I can get out," he says. "This country is beautiful. I never understood why people want to go abroad to Europe and other places when there is so much to see here first."

Ripley now operates a day-cab tractor and stainless steel chemical tanker to make pick-ups and deliveries for Matlack. His runs typically are five to six days long. They cover an area running west to Chicago and St Louis, south to the Carolinas and Georgia, and north to Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Driving requires much time away from home, but Ripley stays in touch with his family. He calls them every day while on the road, and he spends a lot of time with them when home. Ripley and his wife Ruth have two grown children, Matthew and Amy.

Before starting out on each run, Ripley checks his tractor for emergency supplies. "I try to carry everything in the tractor that I could possibly need," he says. "Drivers get a letter from Matlack's safety department every year reminding them to take extra clothing, food, drink, coffee thermos, and spare flashlight. We would like to think the road never will be blocked ahead of us. But sometimes it is, and you have to wait until it's cleared to proceed safely."

About the Author

Foss Farrar