After Almost 40 Years of Driving, Shorty Lee Wants to Keep on Trucking

June 1, 1999
WITH nearly 40 years behind the wheel of a truck, Julius E "Shorty" Lee still enjoys driving as much today as when he started. Now 70, he says he hopes

WITH nearly 40 years behind the wheel of a truck, Julius E "Shorty" Lee still enjoys driving as much today as when he started. Now 70, he says he hopes to stay on the job for at least a couple more years.

During almost a half century of driving-most recently with Ergon Trucking Inc of Jackson, Mississippi-Lee built an outstanding record. Other than a traffic citation or two, he has come close to perfection, traveling more than 3.5 million accident-free miles.

Lee's accomplishments received special recognition in 1998, when he was named Driver of the Year by ECS Underwriting Inc. He was among hundreds of drivers nationwide who were honored by ECS for their professionalism and safe driving records. Lee also was Mississippi's 1998 Driver of the Year.

"While many drivers may be able to brag about years of driving without an accident, few can come close to Shorty's 37 years of accident-free driving," says Kate McGinn, vice-president of ECS Underwriting's transportation business unit. "His longevity in the industry, his professionalism, and his safety record are characteristics that we hope other drivers will not only admire, but will look to repeat. It's these kinds of characteristics that make our roadways safer for everyone."

David Purvis, safety manager for Ergon Trucking, adds that Lee is an old school truck driver with very high standards. "We don't have many Shortys in this business," he says.

"He's concerned about his fellow drivers, and they follow his lead. His terminal in Petal had no accidents last year. I'm glad he'll continue to drive as long as he can pass the physical."

Lee got his first taste of truck driving as a teenager while working at a fleet owned by a relative. Then, during a hitch in the US Army from 1948 to 1950, he was assigned to petroleum supply in the Quartermaster Corps and drove a tank truck.

Following the Army, Lee drove a laundry truck for a year and a half in Pensacola, Florida. An opening at Mississippi Tank Inc, a pressure-vessel manufacturer in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, put him back behind the wheel of a tank truck, and he's been there ever since.

Lee spent 22 years with Mississippi Tank, leaving when the trucking operation was closed down in 1982. "We did a lot of different driving at Mississippi Tank," Lee says. "The owner had a propane business, so we hauled a lot of propane. We delivered new trailers and large storage tanks all over the United States. We also transported steel plate on flatbeds."

Lee says he has developed a strong preference for propane hauling. "Propane drivers get to stay on the ground during loading and unloading," he says. "I'll run about 80,000 miles in 1999, hauling two to three loads of propane a day."

Besides LP-gas, the fleet hauls asphalt, lube oils, transformer oil, crude oil, papermill liquors, and caustics.

Most of the tractors are company-owned, and the newest ones include Peterbilt conventionals with 350-horsepower Cummins M11 engines. All of the MC331 propane trailers in the fleet were built by Mississippi Tank. Capacities range up to 10,000 gallons.

Equipment Changes The equipment used today is vastly different from what Lee was assigned to in the early years. "I drove an International tractor with a gasoline engine, five-speed transmission, and two-speed drive axle," he says. "That was about as good a tractor as you could buy in those days.

"My tractor had a daycab, so I stayed in motels during the longer trips. I wasn't assigned to a tractor with a sleeper until about 1970. The early sleepers leaked, and it was like we had running water. So much rain came in on the left side of my 1966 International that I kept a raincoat ready. It was the only way to stay dry.

"We did a lot of shifting with those old tractors. With today's vehicles, you hardly do any shifting at all. We got tandem-drive tractors when Mississippi raised weights in the early 1960s, and power steering came along around the same time.

"We had a lot of breakdowns with those old tractors, and drivers had to be about half mechanic to keep the equipment running. Drivers were a lot more skilled, and they got a lot more respect. They had to deal with problems such as vapor locks in hot weather and six-volt starters that wouldn't turn over when they got hot."

Round Tires Tires had to be fully round and well balanced. Otherwise, the driver would experience significant vibration through the steering assembly.

Propane trailers probably have changed the least. The basic design has remained the same, but the trailers have gotten bigger and longer. "I used to think I had a big load with a 6,500-gallon trailer," Lee says.

Maneuvering on narrow roads was a challenge even with the smaller rigs. Many a mirror was knocked off when trucks passed each other.

While the highways and equipment have improved markedly, drivers today face plenty of other challenges. Growing traffic congestion has brought delays and road rage.

"I try my best not to aggravate anybody on the road," Lee says. "Still, I was recently cutoff by a lady who even shook her fist at me afterwards. She just couldn't wait to get to wherever she was going.

"I am constantly doing my best to avoid accidents. I try to leave stopping room and a way out no matter what the traffic conditions. I always try to anticipate what other drivers might do. I stay calm, don't get upset, and don't get in a hurry. It's a lot safer to drive the speed limit."

Driver Alertness Staying alert is one of the biggest factors in accident prevention, Lee adds. He recommends taking a break every two to three hours, and the breaks need to be included in the trip plan.

"Truck drivers need to give themselves plenty of time to complete a trip," Lee says. "They have to realize that time lost during a break is simply lost. It's foolish to try to make up lost time. If a driver is late, he's just going to be late.

"The best way to combat fatigue is to get enough rest before going to work. Drivers have to know how much rest they need. The hours-of-service regulations are fine as they are. Drivers just need to use their time off to rest."

Topics such as time allocation and fatigue should be included in driver training programs. Fleets need good training programs, but drivers also must have a willingness to learn.

"I'm still learning new things after all these years of truck driving," Lee says. "A newly hired driver should receive a couple of weeks training at a minimum. It takes time for him to become familiar with the operation."

Pre-Trip Inspections Pre-trip and post-trip inspections must be part of any training program. "This is when we need to find problems with the vehicles," Lee says. "If you want a long career as a truck driver, these inspections must become a natural part of the job."

Lee takes about 15 minutes to perform a pre-trip inspection, and this includes thumping the tires to make sure there are no flats. He looks for oil leaks around the drivetrain components and checks for loose fan belts. Wheels are examined for damage, and lugnuts are checked for tightness. Lee looks for frost on the LP-gas trailer valves and sniffs to detect leaking product around the pump and valves.

Safety meetings are as important as the training program. Lee says they should be held at least quarterly. "When companies don't hold regular safety meetings, it gives drivers the impression that the company doesn't care about safety," he adds.

Despite all of the challenges and changes, Lee would want to be a truck driver even if he was just starting out today. "I still enjoy the work, and being named Driver of the Year was quite an honor," he says.