People are drawn to the trucking industry and truck driving for all sorts of reasons. The luckiest ones are those who drive because they love it.
Jerry Stephens loves driving a truck — and he’s good at it, too. He’s so good, in fact, that he was selected as the 2021 Driver of the Year by the Minnesota Trucking Association (MTA) at a special dinner and award ceremony Jan. 25.
The event was held at the DoubleTree by Hilton Conference Center in Roseville, Minnesota, following the association’s annual safety conference. The 12 candidates for the Driver of the Year award were each honored as a Driver of the Month during 2021.
Judging criteria for the Driver of the Year award include an outstanding driving and work record, contribution to industry and highway safety, and involvement in the community.
Stephens is an independent contractor for Woodbury, Minnesota-based Autumn Transport. The company is focused on agricultural products, with its youngest division in pneumatic tankers.
“He comes from a family of truck drivers, and cares about the image of the industry and the responsibility he has been given to drive a truck,” remarked Chris Senty, safety director for Autumn Transport. Senty is the one who entered Stephens in the Driver of the Year competition.
Stephens usually hauls ground limestone, a product used in the making of caulk, from Marble Hill, Georgia, to a plant in Elizabethtown, Kentucky.
He pulls a pneumatic tanker behind his 2015 Peterbilt 389.
“I’ve been an owner-operator for 28 years,” he said. “I drove for companies for about five years; then I bought my own truck. I like it better that way.”
He started off hauling lumber and pallets and then generalized freight before he found a comfortable niche in the dedicated pneumatic tanker route at Autumn Transport, he said.
During the MTA ceremony, Stephens was honored for achieving more than 3.6 million safe driving miles in a career spanning 33 years. His wife, Wendy, was there to share the event.
Stephens said he has wanted to drive since his childhood.
“I was around it all my life,” he said.
“My dad and others I knew drove, and I used to go with him when I could. Later on, my older brother started driving and I’d go with him, too,” he recalled. “I knew at a young age that I wanted to (drive). I mean, it has to be something you want to do or you’re never going to make it. There’s a lot of stuff you give up, you know.
“I’ve just been around trucks growing up when I was a kid,” he continued. “That’s what I always wanted to do, so that’s what I’ve always done.”
Stephens has been a good fit at Autumn Transport, where integrity and service are two of the company’s core values — and two values that Stephens holds dear.
While his son, now 23, rode along with Stephens as a child, so far he has not shown an interest in following in his father’s footsteps.
“He used to go with me a little bit when he was growing up, and I thought maybe he’d have an interest,” Stephens said. “But I let him make his own choices. So far he hasn’t gone to trucking. He’s got him a good job here at home.”
At just 53 years of age, Stephens says he isn’t planning to retire any time soon.
“I’ve got the perfect little deal for me, he said. “Some guys like to see the country and stay out longer, and trucking is a great opportunity to do that, but I’m happy doing what I’m doing. I plan on doing it for a good while.”
When he isn’t trucking, Stephens and his family enjoy camping and riding side-by-side off-highway vehicles. A favorite destination is the Royal Blue trails near Norris Lake in Eastern Tennessee. The area features more than 23 miles of trails through mountain forests. While he enjoys exploring the trails, Stephens says he’s just as happy to set up camp without the four-wheelers.
Like many drivers who have a few million miles of safe driving under their belt, Stephens has some advice for others.
“Just maintain that following distance, that’s the main thing,” he said.
He knows what he’s talking about. Pulling a pneumatic tanker requires plenty of stopping distance, as the rigs often approach a weight of 80,000 pounds when loaded and can be top-heavy, making swerving dangerous.
“Be aware of your surroundings, too. Things can happen pretty quick,” he said.
Stephens doesn’t adhere to a particular defensive driving system.
“It’s mostly common sense,” he said. “You learn over the years.”
As for his MTA award, Stephens remains humble despite his achievement.
“I’m just a simple country boy,” he said. “I’ve just stuck it out and stuck with it — and, of course, I love it. I love it today just as much as I did when I started, because it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
To some, driving a truck might be just a job — a means of making a living until something better comes along.
To Jerry Stephens, however, it’s the fulfillment of a dream.
Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.