When Wal-Mart trucker George Hart drives into the sunset March 6, he could be the second employee in Walmart’s history to log more than 4 million accident-free miles.
The Anderson County, Mo., resident has spent the past 34 years driving big rigs for the retail giant. He logs about 3,000 miles per week hauling freight from Bentonville to St. James, Mo.
“I make six trips during each five-day week and I’m home on the weekends, Hart said as he runs between the two distribution centers logging 600 miles a day over a nine-hour period. “I’ve been driving for some 50 years in all since I was 21 years old.”
He’s hasn’t always driven the shorter routes, Hart said when he first came to Wal-Mart there were just a few distribution centers so travel time was extended to two to three days one-way.
He fell into the driving occupation by chance.
“I quit school because I thought I’d gotten smarter than the teacher. I picked up a couple of jobs and eventually went to work for Northwest Arkansas Produce in Springdale and they taught me how to drive the big trucks,” Hart said.
He later drove for Emerson Electric for about a decade prior to signing on with Wal-Mart in 1981. Hart said it was his safe driving record that led him to Wal-Mart – that and higher pay. To be considered for hire by Wal-Mart, the minimum requirement is 250,000 miles without any preventable accidents in the past three years. And while Wal-Mart’s trucking business gained headlines because of the high profile accident involving Tracy Morgan in June 2014, the company’s overall driving record earned the American Trucking Association’s fleet safety award in the fall of 2014.
By industry standards, Wal-Mart has one of the safest private fleets on the road driving 2.11 million miles per preventable accident, according to the retailer’s website and data provided by the Federal Motor Coach Safety Administration. In the past 24 months, Wal-Mart has reported 395 crashes involving its private fleet, eight of those were fatalities, 133 resulted in injuries and 254 were tow-away crashes, according to federal data.
Wal-Mart’s private fleet employs about 7,400 drivers and 140 of them have logged 3 million accident-free miles to date. Hart is just the second driver to cross over 4 million miles. Warren Greeno of Loveland, Colo., hit the mark in September of 2013. Greeno was then 59, and had more than 31 years driving for Wal-Mart.
“Warren got to the mark first driving more long haul routes. He will probably be the first in company history to get to 5 million because he’s younger than me and will keep driving for a few more years. It takes about eight years or so to get a million miles if you are covering 120,000 miles a year which is the average,” Hart said.
Hart said inclement weather is what he considers to the most challenging.
“Cars spinning on slick roads are probably the worst. When they start to spin in front of me, I do everything I can get the rig stopped in time. So far, so good. But it’s not always weather. We have to watch out for the other drivers on the road at all times. I know what I am going to do, but you can never tell about the others out on the road.” Hart said.
Hart said the implementation of technology into rigs and communication devices have made the job a little easier over the years.
“The Qualcom system for dispatch is much better than the old system. It keeps up with our hours of service electronically. The antilock brake system has helped to make the rigs safer and prevent skidding out of control when you have to stop suddenly on wet pavement. The trucks ride smoother and pull better than they used to and they’re running more efficiently at the time,” Hart said.
Hart has no regrets for the near five decades he has sat behind the wheel of a big rig. He said the pubic perception of truckers is somewhat misguided.
“Many think that drivers don’t get enough sleep or they’re running up and down the road tired. It’s false,” Hart said. “Also the pay is good in this profession even without being in a union.”
When Hart retires in March he will join the ranks of about 60,000 truckers who will walk away from the profession this year, according to Bob Costello, economist with the American Trucking Association.
“On average the trucking sector will need to recruit nearly 100,000 new drivers every year to keep up with demand, with nearly two-thirds of the need coming from retirements,” he said.
The industry estimates that accelerated retirements and industry growth will create a driver shortage of 240,000 over the next five years.
The ATA notes that carriers are offering sign-on bonuses and increasing driver pay to try and draw more interest to the profession. Industry-wide average pay for drivers in 2014 is $53,000, while over-the-road distance drivers earn about $75,000.
Hart said he’s looking forward to his retirement and catching up on yard work and a long list of honey-do projects. When he’s at home, Hart likes to let someone else do the driving.
“I’ll let my wife do the driving from now on,” Hart joked.
His all-time dream ride is to drive a 500 GT Shelby Mustang on the race track.
When reflecting on his stellar safety record, Hart said it’s just been one day and one trip at time.
“I’ve been careful, lucky and the good Lord has been riding with me all these years,” he added.