Fred Patton is probably one of the safest truck drivers on the road, but when 71-year-old Daisy Roper got the chance, she yanked on a panic stick, stopping his 67-foot-long tractor-trailer rig instantly.
"Whoa," said her friend Maxine Morgan, 82, who was sitting in the truck's back seat. "It really works."
Yes, ma'am. It does. Typically, Mr. Patton, an instructor at Owens Community College's truck driving academy, trips the emergency brake system as needed when students are behind the wheel.
On a recent sunny morning, he was giving driving lessons to Mrs. Roper and Mrs. Morgan, who took turns riding in the front seat of the big, gleaming, white truck.
The hour-long trip marked the first time senior citizens tagged along with an Owens Community College truck driver instructor, said W.W. Wolford, manager of the college's truck driving academy. During a recent Keep Your Keys driving-awareness program at the Sylvania Senior Center, Mr. Wolford told the audience that "if anyone wanted to take a ride, we would set it up and make it happen. That way, they could see what a truck driver sees."
Mrs. Morgan said she was very surprised by the ride-along offer. "We weren't expecting an invitation for something like this," she said, but she and Mrs. Roper, both of Toledo, were revved up and ready to go for a ride in the big truck as soon as possible.
Before Mr. Patton had time to park the rig in the senior center parking lot last week, the two ladies started walking toward the truck, eager to climb aboard. With space tight in the lot, Mr. Patton showed off his driving skills.
"We were watching every inch," Mrs. Morgan, who was obviously quite impressed. "We can barely back up a car."
After the ladies settled into their seats, Mr. Patton headed out on the highway, keeping his distance from the pack of traffic. "You always want to retain a space cushion," he said. "You want to be way ahead or way behind the traffic. If there is no one around me, no one can hit me."
He was always looking ahead - a half mile or so. "I can't get over how much you can see from up here," said Mrs. Roper, scanning the view from the front seat. Because the rig is used for instructional purposes, it has four seats.
As Mr. Patton threaded his way between rows of orange barrels in a construction zone on Reynolds Road, the ladies watched and listened. Mrs. Morgan said later that she wanted to ask a question, but didn't want to distract him. "I thought it was best to just sit there and shut up. He had so much going on. He was busy," she said.
The ladies were surprised that truck seats are comfy. "I've heard about truck drivers who get back problems. These seats are really comfortable, almost more so than my car," Mrs. Morgan said.
And the ladies were startled to learn that it can cost more than $100,000 for a tractor and perhaps $50,000 for a trailer.
Mr. Patton told his passengers that "I'm not out here to teach, teach, teach today. I am out here to learn, learn, learn." He wanted to find out what they thought about highway driving from a truck driver's perspective.
Mrs. Morgan said she knows now that truck drivers have to watch the road constantly, particularly at intersections. It's difficult to hear ambulance sirens, or even the roll of thunder, from inside the truck, said Mr. Patton, a truck driver since 1963. "We're pretty well insulated."
Mrs. Morgan, who wondered about how many miles Mr. Patton gets to a gallon (about seven), asked if Owens truck driving academy students spend time in the classroom before getting behind the wheel of the truck (yes, they do). More than 1,000 students have graduated from Owens Community College's truck driving program, which prepares them for entrance into the professional driving industry.
Trying out the training vehicle's "panic button" - in a parking lot, not on the road - was just one of the highlights of the learning experience for the ladies. They welcomed the safe-driving tips, including reminders about the Three Cs - Caution, Courtesy, and Common Sense.
Mrs. Morgan said she'll watch her mirrors more closely when she drives from now on. "Fred checks his mirrors every five to eight seconds. That sounds like a good idea to me," she said.
The women want to keep their driving skills sharp "so the kids do not take the car keys away," Mrs. Morgan said. "If that happens, there goes your independence."
After climbing down from the rig, the ladies hugged Mr. Patton and asked for his Owens business card. They don't plan to enroll in his classes. They're going to send him thank-you notes.
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