Rob Howell, a truck driver from Firth, reached a milestone this year that most of his peers will never match.
Over his 31-year career with Idaho Falls-based Doug Andrus Distributing, Howell, 57, has driven more than 5 million miles across the United States — all without ever having an accident.
Thirty-one years without an accident is no small feat — trucking accidents are an everyday occurrence, according to people in the business.
“I’ve never heard of anybody that has driven 5 million miles,” said Clay Murdoch, president and CEO of Doug Andrus Distributing, a company that has been locally owned for 83 years.
“And he did it safely,” Murdoch added.
In the trucking business, when an accident happens, the miles a driver accumulated that year are lost. For example, if Howell traveled 160,000 miles in a year — his yearly average — then had an accident, those miles would be forfeited and wouldn’t count toward his career numbers.
But Howell never has had an accident. His secret: “I don’t like to do paperwork so it’s easier to not get in an accident than have to do all the paperwork,” he said.
Howell, who hauls mostly potatoes in his reefer truck, has driven through snowstorms and New York City traffic. He was once buzzed by a pair of U.S. Air Force F-16 fighters, which were using his truck as target practice, on a desolate desert road. He’s conquered the hours of solitude that come with driving trucks. And he hasn’t been hit by a Utahn, driving 80 mph and texting.
His real secret — it’s not avoiding paperwork — is simple.
“It can be a dangerous job,” Howell said. “You just got to watch what you’re doing.”
Howell typically wakes up 5:30 a.m. The television is usually on — he needs background noise while he sleeps after years sleeping in a humming truck — and tuned to the Weather Channel before he starts an 11-hour shift behind the wheel.
“You’ve got to watch your weather,” Howell said.
He likes to know the weather three days in advance. He wants to know whether it’s going to snow in the Nebraska Panhandle on his way to Kentucky or whether there will be a heat wave in Utah as he drives through the desert.
For most of his career, Howell hauled food across the country to Kentucky, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois.
On one trip to the Midwest, Howell was caught in a snowstorm in Nebraska that sent 70 or 80 trucks off the road. It looked like a junkyard for 100 miles, he said.
“It got real bad over there by Big Springs and Chappell and Super D [a trucking company] lost a driver over there. He come into it and didn’t know what it was,” Howell said. “And if you don’t watch your weather those blizzards can get up and get you every time.”
Even more dangerous than the weather these days are other drivers on their cellphones.
“It’s getting worse and worse and worse,” Howell said. “They don’t want to put the phone down.”
Howell said about 80 percent of the accidents involving trucks are caused by other drivers, whether from being on their cellphone, following too close or from not knowing how to merge — another pet peeve of his.
“When they come up to the on ramp to get on the freeway, they think they’ve got the right of way,” Howell said with a laugh. “They don’t got the right of way. I’ll get over if I can but if there’s a car coming up there and he’s going 80 miles an hour, I’m not going to get out in front of him to let you on. You’re going to have to either gas on it and get ahead of me or get behind me.”
His height in the truck, which allows him to see three-quarters of a mile down the road, gives Howell an advantage over other cars. He can see brake lights well in advance. But that doesn’t help in Salt Lake City or Denver, cities with the worst drivers, according to Howell. He compared them to World War II Kamikaze pilots.
“You get to California, you put your blinker on, you let it blink three times — they let you in,” he said. “You put on your blinker on in Utah or Denver, they don’t even recognize it. They’re like, ‘What’s that light going on for?’”
Howell finds himself in Utah more these days, since he started driving routes in the Western U.S. His days of driving Interstate 80 all the way to Kentucky are over.
“I’ve been married for 30 years on the first of April,” Howell said. “I decided to come over here and do this reefer heavy haul and we just go around in circles. That’s all we do.”
His new routes keep him home more often, which makes his wife happy, he said. The last three decades of driving has been hard on his family — Howell has two daughters, who are grown — but now he can drive a load of french fries to Utah and back and be home for dinner.
To pass the time while he drives, Howell listens to the radio and looks out the window, taking in the sights that he knows well by now.
“Right now I’m running Clearfield, Utah, and back every day, twice a day,” he said. “And you look out in the fields, ‘Well they had another calf out there. Oh, that one’s just about ready to have a calf.’ You know, you just look around and stuff.”
Howell listens to country music and an agriculture talk show on satellite radio. He also listens to modern pop music sometimes — it gives him something to talk to his grandchildren about.
“You just got to get used to being by yourself,” he said. “You got to keep your eyes going all the time, you know, and then you just gawk around.”
Murdoch, who oversees 350 employees, 270 of which are truck drivers, said 5 million miles is “incredible.”
“It says a lot about him and the way he approaches his job and how professional he is,” Murdoch said.
“You never have to worry about him,” he added.
Howell plans to keep driving for the next 10 to 12 years, until he’s about 70.
“I figure another 2 million miles and I’m done,” he said. “I get to 7, I’m done.”