View of Freeway Traffic From a Peterbilt Perspective

Jan Hofmann is a regular contributor to Orange County Life.

It's 5:30 a.m. Monday. Ken Bowling's Garden Grove neighborhood is quiet and dark as he starts the family van and heads for work.

"Kind of early to be getting on the road, isn't it?" he notes. I nod and mutter something affirmative, stifling a yawn. Bowling has invited me along today to get a look at Orange County's roads from a different perspective: the cab of his 1978 Peterbilt truck, with a 42-foot trailer behind it.

"Years ago, you'd get up at 4 or 5 in the morning, and truckers were the only ones out here," Bowling says. "But now there's traffic nearly 24 hours a day." The surface streets are mostly quiet at this hour, but the freeways are already getting busy.

A few blocks from home, he stops by a doughnut shop for the usual: a foam cup of coffee. By the time he pulls his van up to his tractor-trailer rig, parked on an industrial back street in Artesia, the cup is empty.

Bowling parks his four-wheeler and starts up the Peterbilt's diesel. As it warms up, he circles the rig, inspecting lights, 18 wheels and tires, making sure that the load of lumber he picked up Friday afternoon at Los Angeles Harbor in San Pedro is still securely tied down.

Then he opens the door to the cab and climbs up into his customized seat, with its special lumbar support and spring suspension to cushion the shock of the road. He looks over all the dials and gauges and switches--I've seen simpler airplane cockpits--and eases it into gear.

At the traffic light at the end of the street, I get my first lesson in how trucks deal with cars. We're turning right; the cars from the opposite direction are lined up to turn left. Bowling has the right of way, but he waits to let the other drivers go first. They would just be frustrated if they had to wait for his slow turn, he says, so it's better to let them go ahead than worry that one of them might dart prematurely into the intersection before the trailer clears it.

As we merge onto the eastbound Riverside Freeway, I see instantly why Bowling needs that special seat. I feel as if I'm riding a jackhammer. Bowling apologizes. "It'll settle down some when we get past this stretch," he says. "Concrete isn't very flexible."

Sure enough, when we get past the concrete and onto asphalt, the battering subsides--a little.

We're headed for Mission Viejo, where the lumber will be used to build new $400,000-plus houses on a recently bulldozed hillside.

Even as a boy, Bowling was fascinated with how things got from here to there, on trucks, boats, airplanes, trains. His grandfather was a truck driver. Bowling says he chose that profession because "I like to be on the move all the time."

But now, after nearly 25 years, he is looking for a new line of work. "It's just too frustrating now," he says. He must share the road not only with an ever-increasing number of cars, but with more and more trucks as well.

Before the trucking industry was deregulated under the Reagan Administration, Bowling says: "You were certified to haul one thing, and that's what you hauled. But now every Tom, Dick and Harry can haul anything they want."

With increased competition, some drivers try to undercut the others by hauling loads for less. "It's no wonder those guys are out here rushing around like crazy," he says. "That's the only way they can hope to make money."

On our left, another tractor-trailer rig is passing, with his right turn signal on. Bowling reaches over to flick his lights on and off, a traditional trucking courtesy gesture to let the other driver know he's clear to merge in front. But the other driver does not acknowledge the signal.

"Everybody used to do stuff like that," Bowling says. "I still do; for me it's just part of the tradition. But I don't get many responses anymore."

Other trucking traditions have changed as well. "Years ago, if a truck was stopped on the side of the road, other truckers would stop to help out. Now they just keep on going," he says.

Bowling calls my attention to the side rear-view mirrors. "See that guy back there? He's right on top of me. I would never do that with a truck.

"This rig weighs up to 80,000 pounds, loaded," Bowling says. "You have to respect that."

Meanwhile, in front of us, cars are constantly cutting in. Bowling says he tries to leave adequate space in front of him in case he has to stop suddenly, but it's a losing battle. Even if there is barely room for one car, the space won't stay empty for long. Instead of hitting his brakes, Bowling just keeps dropping back gradually.

As the road gets more congested with going-to-work traffic, he moves carefully over into the center lane in a bid to avoid some merging cars.

"People just panic at the idea of being behind a truck," he says. "They just have to get in front of you."

It was Bowling's wife, Tracey, who volunteered him for this assignment with a letter to Life on Wheels. "I am very proud of what my husband does," she wrote. "Whenever I ride with him, I feel safe in the knowledge that he knows what he is doing, and I appreciate all the more the work he does and the aggravation he deals with every day."

Both the Bowlings say the highways would be safer if car drivers better understood the inherent danger of trucks and gave them a wider berth.

But truckers aren't all perfect, either. "Look at that!" Bowling says as we pass another truck, hauling cement pipe on an open trailer. "He hasn't tied that down very well on top."

"Yes, there are the 'stupid' truck drivers too, and we know a few of them," Tracey Bowling wrote in her letter. "I like to think that for every stupid passenger car driver, there is someone like myself who knows what to do around a moving truck, and for every unsafe truck driver, there is a good driver like Ken out there."

We're going 55 m.p.h. on the southbound Santa Ana Freeway--which means most everybody is passing us. But Bowling says he doesn't like to speed. "You've already got so much to watch out for, but if you're going 65, you've got a lot more to worry about. It just isn't worth it to me."

Bowling is an independent contractor, hauling regularly for a lumber distributor. Sometimes, he says, he gets instructions to hurry. "I just tell them I'm not going to break any laws or do anything that's unsafe. If they were in such a desperate hurry, they should have ordered the lumber earlier."

Bowling says he has never had a moving violation, although he was once cited for having an overweight load when the lumber he was hauling turned out to be greener and heavier than usual.

Traffic has slowed to a crawl near the confluence of the Santa Ana and San Diego freeways. Bowling gasps as a motorcycle zips along between lanes and right into the space in front of us. "That kind of stuff really scares me," he says.

We exit at Oso Parkway, then head east toward the housing development. Behind us is another truck with an identical load; the driver is a friend of Bowling's, hauling for the same company. The two drivers chat on their CB radios as they drive. Neither has a "handle," and they use no CB jargon. "Nobody really does that these days," Bowling says.

At the construction site, Bowling gets out, dons work gloves and unhooks the straps that hold down the load. A forklift is waiting to unload the truck.

As the forklift works, he rolls up the straps and puts them neatly away. By the time the supervisor signs for the delivery, he is ready to go back to the harbor for another load.

"I never know where they'll send me," he says. "Could be Ventura, or out in the desert, somewhere in L.A., or back here. So I never know when I'll be done for the day."

It is past 8 a.m. now, and the northbound freeway is crowded and moving slow. Cars are cutting in four and five at a time now, and they seem more urgent than before.

"I don't know why some people think they're so important that they have to get in front of everybody else," Bowling says. "It's like a contest. And some of them say, 'We don't want trucks on our freeways.' That really gets me. I pay more than $10,000 a year in road-use taxes. So who says it's their freeway?

"You know, we're all in this together. I just wish we could all work together to find some solutions, instead of taking it out on each other."

Looking Like New

Do you wash your car often? Or do you wait until the kids can write graffiti in the dust? We'd like to know about your car-cleaning habits, inside and out. Do you wash it yourself? What kind of cleaner works best? Do you insist on a chamois or will paper towels and rags do just as well? Maybe you go to a carwash. Or do you prefer having your car detailed?

A Little Road Music

What's the sound track for your daily commute? Do you prefer rock to get you going, or easy-listening to calm your nerves? Maybe you keep it on the all-news channel. Tell us what you like to listen to when you drive, and why.

Send your comments to Life on Wheels, Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626. Please include your phone number so that we can contact you. To protect your privacy, Life on Wheels does not publish correspondents' last names when the subject is sensitive.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World