Ken Tolliver had two career aspirations when growing up — becoming a professional athlete and being a truck driver. When that first pick didn’t pan out, he immediately switched gears to focus on his passion for driving.
He’s been going strong ever since.
“We had a family friend who drove a milk truck,” Tolliver said. “When I was a little boy — 10 or 11 years old — I used to ride with him and ask him various questions about how the truck operates: How do you change gears? What made it do this and do that? He was inspiring to me.
“I started driving in 2000, and I now have 3 million miles accident-free,” he continued.” I’m truly blessed to be in this industry accident-free. It’s a great honor to say that.”
Once his driving career was rolling, Tolliver decided to specialize in tankers. He’s now been pulling pneumatics for 17 years.
“I started out from 2000 to 2005 pulling dry vans,” he said. “I had a dedicated run from Tennessee to Arizona, and I started seeing all these tankers on the road. I started talking to these older guys in the tank truck industry and I’m like, ‘Maybe that’s something I want to do.’”
Most drivers would agree that hauling a tanker is an acquired skill, as much art as science, and something many drivers shy away from. Not Tolliver, who says the unique nature of pulling a tank is one of the things that appeals to him. It’s also been a source of job security to master a skill many other drivers are hesitant to take on.
“I was in Ontario, California, at a restaurant, and when I walked outside I had an older guy tell me, ‘You need to be a specialized carrier. Tell me how many dry vans you see. And then count how many tanks,’” he said.
“That stuck with me,” he continued. “After I did five years in the dry van industry, I started looking into being a specialized carrier. That’s when I started looking at these tanks and how they operate. I really fell in love with them, and I haven’t looked back since.”
Tolliver says the attributes of a good tanker driver aren’t that different from those of any other driver. Professionalism, he said, “doesn’t know a dry van from a reefer from a tanker,” but is immediately recognizable to employers and peer drivers alike.
“The way I see it as a professional driver in this industry for 22 years, you have to have good focus, have good training and be aware of your surroundings at all times — with as few distractions as possible,” he said. “Those are key things I use in this industry to make myself accident-free.
“This industry changes all the time,” he continued. “As drivers, we have to change as the industry grows and changes. We have to adapt. We have to be trained and develop (our skills) all the time.”
To that end, Tolliver has been giving back to the driving community as a trainer for several years, first with Bulkmatic and now with his current employer, G&D Trucking/Hoffman Transportation. In addition, he is on G&D/Hoffman’s driver advisory board.
Not surprisingly, safety has been a central theme throughout Tolliver’s trucking career, and he strives to be a role model and mentor to newer drivers.
“I take that challenge very personally,” he said. “When I first got into the industry, especially the pneumatic side, somebody had to teach me. I was that guy watching the older drivers. ‘How does the tank operate? What made it do this? What made the blower do that?’
“So now the knowledge that I have, I can give it back to the next generation,” he explained. “As these guys get older, we’re going to be looking at them.
“I take pride in being a role model in this industry and being the person to help teach the young guys coming in, and sometimes even guys that’s older than me who are just getting into the tanker industry,” he continued. “I like helping to teach and develop all the new drivers into the tanker truck industry. It’s something I take pride in.”
A lot has changed during Tolliver’s two-plus decades on the road. In particular, the technology is much more sophisticated.
“When I started we didn’t have a GPS; we were getting the map out from California to Miami, Florida,” he said. “We’d be in Spokane, Washington, and we’ve got to go to Gainesville, Florida. We’d draw a string out on the map and just start going I-90, I-94, I-80, I-70, all the way down. That’s the way I was taught (to navigate) from the old-school truck drivers. You used to call the customer and get directions. Now you just can do Google Earth. Our job’s a lot easier now.
“The thing that really hasn’t changed is you still have to be a professional in every aspect of this industry,” he added. “I’m still the same guy as I was 22 years ago: ‘Yes sir, no ma’am, good morning sir.’ Those are things that have never changed. And my focus on staying safe; that’s another thing that’s never changed in this 22-year career.”
Tolliver’s long tenure and impeccable record have been recognized by the National Tank Truck Carriers. The association has named him as one of eight finalists for the 2022-2023 Driver of the Year; the winner will be announced in May.
Just talking about being considered for the honor brings a smile to Tolliver’s face and note of disbelief to his voice. More important than any award, however, he says he’d like his career to represent a goal young people could aspire to and follow in his footsteps.
“There is a high demand for truck drivers; we really need new guys coming in,” he said. “What inspires you to want to be a truck driver? For me personally, I really enjoy the freedom of it, getting to meet different people in this world, the equipment we have and the technology we have.
“For me, everything is about passion. If I was talking to a group of young people about trucking, I would tell them that to get into this industry and be successful at it, you have to have a passion for it,” he concluded.
Dwain Hebda is a freelance journalist, author, editor and storyteller in Little Rock, Arkansas. In addition to The Trucker, his work appears in more than 35 publications across multiple states each year. Hebda’s writing has been awarded by the Society of Professional Journalists and a Finalist in Best Of Arkansas rankings by AY Magazine. He is president of Ya!Mule Wordsmiths, which provides editorial services to publications and companies.