Taking Roll: Cox just another ‘normal’ driving teacher

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 26, 2004

Tanya Cox recalls coming out of a mill with a load back in 1992 shortly after she began driving an 18-wheeler and being pulled over by an Alabama state trooper.

“He couldn’t believe that a woman — I was pretty young at the time, too — could really have a commercial license,” Cox says with a laugh.

Times have changed.

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Today Cox, 34, is a driving instructor for the Alabama Southern Community College Driver Training Institute, a joint effort of Alabama Southern, South Alabama Skills Consortium and Reid State College. She teaches others — many of them women — how to drive the big rigs.

“When I first started driving there wasn’t an awful lot of women out there,” says Cox. “Now there’s so many women in the industry that a woman driver hardly even turns heads anymore.”

According to figures provided by the American Trucking Associations, of the 3 million or so full-time truck drivers on the road today nearly 200,000 are women.

While the economy may have been sluggish in recent years, the trucking industry has kept the help wanted sign out. That’s because trucks play a vital, if largely unappreciated, role in powering the economy.

Truckers summarize the importance of the role trucks play with a pithy saying that fits nicely on the bumper of a Peterbilt: If you got it, the saying goes, a truck brought it.

Explains Cox, “Everything you see has to get on a truck at some point to get there. It might have come part of the way on a train or by plane, but at some point it was also transported by truck. So there’s a big demand for truck drivers.”

Cox was a regional driver before becoming a driving instructor, operating mostly in the Southeast. She ran from Texas to Florida and on up into North Carolina. She admits she still suffers from periodic bouts of white-line fever.

“It’s different from normal life, that’s for sure,” Cox says of the trucking life. “When you drive a truck you don’t punch a time clock. But you do have to be at your destination at a certain time. That’s why planning is such an important part of this business.”

Getting students to understand the importance of planning for the unexpected is one of the most difficult aspects of being a driving instructor for Cox.

A modern five-axle 18-wheeler is nearly 70 feet in length, including cab and trailer. It is Cox’ job to teach students how to back up; how to shift — up as well as down — a transmission that can have as many as 18 gears; how to drive; how to turn; how to couple and uncouple a trailer; how to keep a log book; and how to comply with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.

“My biggest job is just being safe,” she says. “Of course, you have to teach ’em how to shift along with that.”

And trucks don’t stop running when the weather gets bad. Drivers have to be able to cope with whatever the road throws at them. “Rain, sleet or snow, you can drive through it all if you have the right equipment,” Cox says.

Drivers also have to cope with the unpredictability of other drivers — four-wheelers, in trucker terminology. A fully loaded big truck can weigh 80,000 pounds and takes much longer than a 6,000-pound car to stop. But many drivers are seemingly oblivious to that fact, often pulling out in front of a big truck.

“Us being a truck driver training truck, you’d think they wouldn’t pull out in front of us,” Cox sighs, “but they do.”

A truck also takes much more room to turn than does a car. It is not uncommon for four-wheelers to see a big truck making a wide right turn and try to dart past it on the right side — potentially a very dangerous move.

Big trucks also have a number of “blind spots” that make it difficult for the drivers to see every car around them at any one time.

“It takes a lot more room to turn around in one of these, and it takes a lot more time to stop,” Cox says. “People think it’s OK for them to pull out in front of you, that you can stop on a dime. You can’t. It takes a little while to slow these things down.”

The driving institute, which is based in Thomasville, offers a six-week program. Students put in 40 hours a week, both in the classroom and behind the wheel. By the conclusion of the program students should be prepared to pass the state examination to earn their commercial drivers license, or CDL.

“I can teach just about anybody to drive one of these trucks,” Cox says. “But we have had a few who just were not coordinated enough to get the hang of it.”

Those who qualify as economically disadvantaged may attend the institute at no charge. You may also qualify to attend at no charge if you have recently been laid off.

For more information about the Alabama Southern Community College Driving Training Institute call 251-246-7020 or 334-289-4228.