Monday, February 15, 1999

How is he driving? Like a hero on wheels

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Mike Marlar doesn't remind me of a truck driver. I admit to holding some of the familiar stereotypes. You know, truck driver as yahoo barreling down the highway.

        Just shows how wrong stereotypes can be.

        Mike is a caring, soft-spoken man I might never have met if it hadn't been for his sister, Brenda Hamm.

        She wrote a letter to the editor here at The Enquirer calling Mike a hero for what he did out on Interstate 75. Driving a tanker truck with 8,900 gallons of gasoline aboard, Mike was heading south on the afternoon of Jan. 25 when somebody in a car cut him off. His rig weighs 79,820 pounds and can't turn on a dime to avoid somebody else's bad driving.

        After cutting off Mike's truck, the car went out of control and got clipped by the tanker. The truck blew a tire and started heading for oncoming traffic on the other side of the highway. To avoid hitting anyone else, Mike wrestled the rig in the opposite direction, off to the shoulder, where the tanker tipped over and rolled and rolled.

        “There's no time to think about yourself when something happens like this,” Mike told me. “I've seen too many accidents. I know what a truck can do to a car. So, I wanted to do as little damage as possible.”

        Drenched in gas, trapped in the rig for two long hours, Mike was eventually cut free and taken to the hospital, his body cut and bruised, his ribs broken.

        As his sister noted, Mike put the truck down to save others, placing his own life in danger. She wrote her letter so the public would know truck drivers like her brother are brave, good men who have to put up with a lot just to make a living.

        “Mike is a hero,” Brenda said as she looked up at her big brother. “He took action to save lives.”

        Mike has driven trucks for 24 accident-free years. For the last 15 years, he's been behind the wheel of a tanker truck.

        Truckers have a name for drivers who haul gasoline. They call them suicide jockeys.

        “Until now, I never thought about how dangerous this job is,” Mike said. “It's like being a cop. You don't worry about it. You just do your job and go home.”

        And you hope you make it home in one piece.

        Mike did. And I wanted to know how.

        “I can see danger approaching,” he said.

        From his vantage point in a truck cab 11 feet above the road, he can “glance at somebody and know that if they're speeding, weaving or following too close, they are going to screw up.”

        He sees “rushers,” “faders” and the otherwise engaged.

        “Rushers are in a hurry to go no place. They see a back-up ahead and go on the shoulder or the median just to pass a truck. Then, when they get in front of you, they slow down.”

        Faders shift lanes “in and out. You keep passing them all day. Sometimes they'll even take an exit ramp and then go right down the on-ramp to get a few places ahead of everybody else.”

        Otherwise engaged drivers scare and aggravate Mike Marlar the most.

        “They pay attention,” he said, “to everything but their driving.”

        He has seen rush-hour drivers reading the paper and typing on laptops, helping their kids with homework and changing diapers.

        “I even saw a couple having sex in the back of a pickup truck while another guy was driving.”

        When Mike passed the pickup, he didn't blow his horn.

        “But the couple waved.”

        Mike and Brenda chuckled over the story of the trucking lovers. Their family resemblance glowed in their laughing eyes.

        In my mind, I could see Mike cruising down the highway, his eyes on the road, watching for trouble, finding funny stories to tell and, if need be, saving lives.

        To complete this picture, his sister would be writing everything down, making sure everyone knows truckers are out there doing good.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

        Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.