Half a century of safe driving
Oct 1, 2002 12:00 PM
GEORGE “SONNY” WAGNER considers himself lucky. He knew what he wanted to do for a career at an early age. As a boy growing up in rural Wisconsin, Wagner would stare wide-eyed at the 18-wheel trucks that would drive through town.
“I knew then that's what I wanted to do: to be a truck driver,” Wagner said. “It was a boyhood dream for me. I wanted to get up and go places — to see the country. I couldn't work a factory or a desk job and stay in one place.”
That dream became a reality for Wagner at age 19, when he went to work as a bulk tank driver for Kampo Transit, which later was acquired by Schneider National. Now, 50 years later, Wagner has retired from Schneider National, effective Sept 1, 2002.
During his 50-year tenure as a driver, he has driven 4.6 million miles without an accident — a company record. This puts him in an elite class of drivers. Wagner is undoubtedly one of the safest drivers in the history of trucking.
“He is very even-tempered and doesn't let the events of the day — good or bad — affect his driving,” said Glenn Schumacher, team operations manager at Schneider National, who has worked with Wagner for nearly 20 years. “He is very dedicated and professional and is always willing to accept new challenges. He's always ready to go the extra mile.”
The 69-year-old Wagner attributes his driving record to three things: “patience, patience, and more patience.”
“I always go a little slower than everyone else because that helps you avoid accidents,” Wagner said. “It's also important to know where you are at all times on the road in relation to other traffic. Pre-tripping your truck — making sure everything is working — is key, too.”
Wagner also took his own initiative in operating a safe truck. He spent money out of his own pocket to put spot mirrors on the front fenders of a truck to help eliminate the blind spot. That's before this became standard equipment.
While getting a load to its destination on time was Wagner's ultimate job, he was always willing a help a fellow motorist or pedestrian. He recalled an incident in the 1950s where a little girl was stranded on her bike in the middle of a busy Chicago street during a driving rainstorm. Traffic was whizzing by, and no one would stop to help the frightened child. Wagner used his truck to block traffic, got out of his cab and helped her to the side of road, and then waited with her until help arrived.
Wagner also dabbled as a mechanic, and he often would help stranded drivers change a flat tire or fix an engine problem. He once fixed the engine on a bus that was carrying a band heading to New York to play at the World's Fair.
During his tenure, the industry has changed dramatically. In the early days, trucks were 45 feet long including both tractor and trailer. Now, the trailers are 53 feet long. Early trucks that he drove didn't have heat, and the winter made it almost unbearable, especially in the northern states. Drivers would put on as many layers of clothes as possible. Some truckers even set up kerosene heaters in their cabs. But today's trucks are like “sitting in your living room,” according to Wagner.
Technology has also made a big impact on the way that Wagner did his job. Schneider National was the first trucking fleet to use Qualcomm satellite technology to communicate with its drivers.
“There is no such thing as the good ol' days any more,” Wagner said. “Everything has changed for the better.”
Looking back on his career, Wagner will miss the freedom of being on the road and seeing new places. But don't think that he is going to spend his retirement years sitting on a rocker on his porch in Brillion, Wisconsin. Wagner has retrofitted an old bus into a motorhome. He plans on touring the country, visiting places that he only saw from a distance on the highway. The Statue of Liberty is one example. Wagner also plans on going to Las Vegas, Nevada later in 2002.
Once the weather gets nicer, Wagner plans on driving up to Alaska to spend a year up there with his son. After that, who knows where his travels will take him? One thing is for sure: Wagner will keep on trucking.
© 2013 Penton Media Inc.
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