For Maryland Driver of the Year Bill Nearhoof, safety is where it’s at

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Phil Nearhoof Maryland DOY
Bill Nearhoof was selected as the Maryland Truck Association’s 2020 Driver of the Year. He has been a truck driver for 44 years and is Pitt Ohio’s longest-serving employee. He has racked up more than 3.7 million safe miles. (Courtesy: Pitt Ohio)

Baltimore, Md. — Look up the word “consistency” in the dictionary and you’re likely to see Bill Nearhoof’s portrait. For more than four decades, the Baltimore native has not only been a fixture on the roads, but also, year-in and year-out, the state of Maryland’s safest and most reliable driver on 18 wheels.

“I’ve been doing this for 44 years,” Nearhoof said. “Even at work, I’ll walk in and think, ‘I’ve been here longer than some of these people been alive.’”

In fact, Nearhoof is the longest-serving employee in the history of his freight company, Pitt Ohio. During Nearhoof’s time with Pitt Ohio he’s racked up 3.7 million safe driving miles, a feat that puts him in rare company. His safe driving total works out to 148 laps around the globe, or eight round trips to the moon.

“The average motorist, I figure, travels around 25,000 miles a year,” he said. “So, it’s like almost four lifetimes (of driving) that you’re looking at.”

In addition to being the company’s longest-tenured driver and its safest, Nearhoof can now add “Best in Class” to his list of career accomplishments. In February, the Maryland Motor Truck Association named Nearhoof Driver of the Year for 2020. He was previously named Driver of the Month during 2008 and 2016.

“I remember in 2016, we were there at the banquet they gave us, and I asked, ‘What do you have to do to win one of these (driver of the year awards)?’” he said with a chuckle. “This year it kind of caught me by surprise.”

“Seriously, even though this recognizes me as Driver of the Year, a lot of people play a part in being able to do whatever I do,” he continued. “That award was possible because there were people along the way that helped me each and every day.”

Nearhoof remembers first becoming enamored with big rigs as a kid, watching the trucks make their way through traffic along Interstate 895 through Baltimore. Professionally, however, he was training to be a machinist during high school, before changing his career path about the time he joined the U.S. Navy’s Seabees, serving from 1973 to 1979.

“I went in right around the end of Vietnam. Really, the time I spent was basically as a reservist because there was no room for us. They were sending guys home,” he said. “But one of the best things about that was, I was a construction mechanic. I was around some of the best mechanics around; heavy equipment, vehicles, jeeps, trucks, whatever.

“They were very, very good and they taught you a lot about maintenance, what to look for and different things to fix and being aware of what you had,” he explained. “The equipment you had in the service, you had to make sure it was running because your life depended on it.”

After getting out of the military in 1979, Nearhoof joined Pitt Ohio — and the rest is history.

“When our company, Pitt Ohio, started, when I started, we were four trucks and one door. Lord knows how big we are now,” he said. “I was very fortunate when I started that I was surrounded by some of the very best people in the industry. They took the time to show you, teach you and work with you, and it helped you get better. Like I said, (earning this honor is) shared; it isn’t just one person. The one is never greater than the whole.”

Nearhoof has run his Midwest and the Mid-Atlantic routes so many times — including Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New Jersey, Maryland and Virginia — that he laughingly says he could do it blindfolded. In practice, however, he’s been the model of safety.

“As a driver, being a professional, it’s the awareness of things around you, the people around you and the situations,” he said. “The responsibility that you have with a tractor-trailer, with the size of it, sometimes you have to take a step back to take a step forward. If you’re not sure about something, back away from it.

“There’s times to be a defensive driver and there’s times to be an aggressive driver, like times where you need to get away from certain situations,” he said. “Being safe often means being able to adapt to your surroundings, which is what I have done over the years.”

Recognizing his safety-first mentality, Pitt Ohio has leveraged Nearhoof’s expertise into the classroom, where he’s trained more than 100 of his fellow employees in the Smith System driver safety program.

“The Smith System is the five keys to defensive driving,” Nearhoof said. “The people I took through those courses were drivers, and even our salespeople. We took them out, too. When I started as a trainer, there wasn’t much of a curriculum there to work with. I would train somebody and then I would critique myself. Did I do everything that I needed to do? Little by little, I created a formal training program, which they adapted and still use today.”

The irony of Nearhoof’s award for consistency in driving is that it was given for a year that was anything but “regular,” requiring adaptability to never-before-seen conditions seemingly around every turn. Despite the uncharted territory of driving during COVID-19, Nearhoof took everything in stride.

“Even during the hard part of the pandemic, we stayed busy,” he said. “We slowed down a little bit, but we worked every day. The responsibility that we had, whether you drove a tanker, a flatbed, a box or whatever — we had a service that we had to provide to people. We are able to move goods and we did our part to keep the wheels under America. For us, it never changed.

“We took our safeguards. We wore masks and we wiped our trucks down and we took all the
precautions, but for me, it was business as usual,” he continued. “You go out each and every day and do the best you can to provide a service to the warehouses when people were looking for paper towels and food and things. Here and there you’d get some recognition; I’d be going down the road and there’d be some radio stations that would thank the truck drivers. During the pandemic, everybody loved us.”

While Nearhoof may feel as if he’s been driving his routes “forever,” he is keenly aware that nothing lasts forever. This October, he’ll hang up his keys for good to spend more time with his wife, Kathy, along with the racers at the Hagerstown Speedway and the bass of the Susquehanna River. Or so he says; he was supposed to call it quits last fall, but he’s still going.

“I don’t know. They write songs about being addicted to the grind. There’s something that pushes you day in and day out and this is a business that once it has you, it’s got you,” Nearhoof said.

“It’s been a super-good career for me. You give up a lot; it’s a demanding business,” he continued. “But the things that I gave up in my younger years — I’ve come to understand that I gave them up for a reason. You’ve got a real comfortable life ahead of you when you climb out of the truck.”

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