Faces of Trucking: Rhonda - A real drivers story

There are over 3.5 million truckers in America, and 3.5 million great trucking stories. This one is about Rhonda, check it out!

You won’t meet many truckers like Rhonda Hartman.

Her truck driving resume alone assures that. At age 57, she has been a professional truck driver for 36 years.

That’s right. Nearly four decades of truck driving. And, as you might guess, way back when she first started in this business, in 1982, she was among very few women on the road in a rig rather than a car.

She got into it because, well, “we didn't see much of a choice. We were farmers,” says Rhonda, who lives and works in Iowa, which is also where she was born and raised.

During the farm crisis of the early 1980s, she says, “I was married to the third son in the family. There was not enough money for all the boys to farm. So, my husband and I took the farm semi and started hauling grain to chicken farms in Arkansas.”

Her husband, Ron, taught her to drive, she adds. “Back then, if you owned a truck you only needed a chauffeur’s license. It covered everything. I took a 50-question test and passed.”

They had only a day cab, she recalls. “Driving with a day cab with nowhere to sleep was a little rough. One of us was driving while the other was sleeping against the window.”

Within a few months they bought a sleeper truck, a 1975 Cabover International, and started pulling a refrigerator trailer hauling from meat packing houses in Iowa to the East coast.

“As a woman on the road then, it was scary. I had never been very far away from the farm area in Iowa. Going to the big cities on the East Coast was an eye-opener. But we did it together, and I learned the business of trucking.”

Back then, she and Ron had to load and unload up to 50,000 pounds of meat from the floor; the boxes were too slippery for pallets. Eventually, the couple both drove solo. She drove for Walmart for 10 years, Ron for 21. Unfortunately, Ron passed away about 10 years ago. But Rhonda has continued driving.

Life In Trucking Goes On

She now works for an LTL (less than a load) company, Old Dominion Freight Line, hauling a variety of goods. “I am a P and D (pickup and delivery) driver now, and I love it! Sometimes I deliver a pallet or two of freight going to smaller businesses that don’t have enough room for inventory to warrant a full load,” she says.

Her main customer, Vermeer Corporation, is a bigger company, where she picks up from 20 to 40 orders of its customers’ goods on her trailer. She brings the loads back to her home terminal, where they are divided and sent out all over the world.

Rhonda says trucking is a perfect fit for her. “I like it because I don’t have a boss over my shoulder. I am a very independent person. I don’t need someone telling me what to do all day. I have a job to do, and I get it done.

“The other thing is what salary I make is what I decide I’m making. It’s not like most jobs where, ‘You’ll clock in at this time and clock out that time.’ In this business, you can make much more if you want to work longer. So, I’m more in control of what I make. Truck driving pays very well.”

Perhaps her favorite part of trucking, Rhonda says, is her customers.

“I love getting out and visiting with people in little bursts of time all day—finding out who they are, about their families. If I didn’t drive a truck, I’d like to be a recruiter. I like people. That’s the other thing about trucking today. You don’t have to be solitary, seeing only one or two people a day.”

Finally, Rhonda usually doesn't drive more than 50 miles away from her terminal. So, she points out, she’s home every night. It’s a good family-friendly job for her. This is important, since she has five children and, now, nine grandchildren. She hopes that encourages other people, including women, to look more seriously at getting into trucking.

“Most people think this business is: Either you’re gone all the time in the beginning of the job, or you have to know somebody to get into it and be able to be home every night. That’s not the case anymore. So many companies are hiring and allow you to be home every day or night. If you want to see the country, you can do OTR, but you don’t have to.

“Nowadays, it’s more geared to families. This industry is also much more diverse than when I started. I’m excited to talk about it.”

Part of the reason for spreading the word is that Rhonda is a driver trainer at Old Dominion—one of several, for the need is great.

“The average age of truck drivers today is about 54,” Rhonda says. “We need younger drivers in the business. At my company, and others, we have a dock-to-driver program, where high school graduates start out working the dock at 18. They learn how to show up on time, work hard, and have a good attitude. Then at 21, if they want to, they can get into the driver program, where we teach them everything they need to know to be successful and safe drivers.

“I still have to run my route while training. All the driver trainers in my company do that; we teach by running our routes. So, it’s real-world training. Even those who have gone to trucking school may still need this training. But they earn while they learn.”

Some Advice For New Drivers

Rhonda has her share of advice for new drivers. First, she says, “They have to have patience. That is probably the hardest thing to teach somebody. They have to slow down a bit and have patience with the traffic.

“You can’t be pushing the edge all the time while you’re driving. You have to react to what the traffic is doing around you. It’s like playing defense on a football team.”

There are so many blind spots around trucks, she says, so you must be aware of everything around you. And, she adds, “with distracted driving, it’s hard some days to do this job. They can pass all the laws they want about people not using their cell phones while driving. People just don’t think they’ll get caught.

“I will bet you at least 75 percent of the people around me in a day are on their cell phones or on their tablets.”

Also, she advises those getting into the industry, “do your research. Don’t just sign a contract with the first company you talk to. They all talk a good game. Talk to their drivers alone too, so you understand what that company’s hiring practices are and what to expect working there.”

Rhonda has received Old Dominion’s safe driving award six years now, and she has driven a total of 2.7 million miles without an accident. She has placed second at the Iowa Truck Driving Championships once and third twice. But, she says, “I'll keep trying to get a first.”

She has no plans to retire anytime soon. The work is not hard physically, she says, and yet, it’s good physical exercise. “In my job I am in and out of the truck sometimes 20 to 30 times a day, moving trailers around. This is unlike OTR, where you don’t get much physical exercise. I still work 12 to 14 hours some days, but I would say most drivers probably average 9.”

That leaves time for those children, grandchildren—and, oh yes, her 2017 Harley Heritage.

New Drivers Needed

As for women in trucking, Rhonda says there hasn’t been as much progress as people may think. “I am the only woman driver in my terminal. It may be three percent of women statistically running with somebody. Women running alone is probably one percent or less. That’s what it is in my company, and we actively recruit women, telling them they will be home every day.”

Rhonda’s passion is safety in the industry and helping to teach that to people inside and outside of trucking.

Rhonda also likes “giving back,” she says. This is how she became a member of the Iowa Road Team in 2015.

“Mainly we went to driver’s ed classes and taught new drivers how to drive safely around trucks.” But she also got to see what it was like on the other side of the glass at a DOT station when she rode with a highway patrolman for a day.

In January 2018, Rhonda became a captain on America’s Road Team. This allows her to travel to speak to groups about the industry a couple of days a month. She makes sure to talk about the Share the Road program.

This is like the Iowa program but “now it's on a much bigger scale, speaking nationwide,” Rhonda says. “I have been very blessed in my career with Old Dominion.”

Yep, trucking is a good life, Rhonda tries to tell everyone. Her experience has proven that. “You can make this business anything you want. I choose to try and make it better.”

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