Cover Story
Under fire
Random highway shootings lend darker meaning to phrases like defensive driving and 'travel safe.'

By Sandi Soendker, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

Last month, more highway shootings in Phoenix made headlines along with a chilling report of a UPS driver who was randomly shot at in St. Louis while doing his job.

Recently, Land Line polled readers on its website, asking if their truck had ever been shot at or had rocks thrown at it? Of those who responded, 51.72 percent said yes, 31.03 percent said no, and 17.24 percent said they thought so, but weren’t sure.

The rash of random shootings and rock-throwings on our interstates has become a growing concern of truckers, motorists, law enforcement and, well, everyone who spends any amount of time on our nation’s big roads. All drivers – and passengers – are at risk, but when it comes to who spends the most time out there, truckers win hands down.

Sometimes it’s broken glass; sometimes it’s worse. In mid-May, a 68-year-old truck driver was shot in the face while bobtailing on the Dan Ryan Expressway in Chicago. According to the police report, someone in a passenger car pulled alongside and opened fire, shattering the driver’s-side window. Chicago’s ABC7 reported he was recovering. At press time, the shooter was still at large.

In the statistics, truckers are not distinguished from motorists, but it was the third expressway shooting in Chicago in a week. News sources reported the police said there had been at least 20 highway shootings in 2016.

This sounds like a number that might lead the national list far and away. But it’s not. A quick Google search tells you that the recent incidents in California’s Bay Area since November have now reached 28, with most on I-80, as well as Highway 4, and some on Highway 101 and Interstates 580 and 880. Area mayors claim to be “under siege.”

In February, drivers on Highway 75 in Tulsa County, Okla., were terrorized for two nights. Nearly a dozen Wal-Mart trucks and two cars were shot at. Police arrested two 14-year-old boys who were out hunting and decided to do some target practice. They said they didn’t mean any harm.

In Florida, four people were injured in one of three pellet-gun shootings in mid-May on I-295 in Jacksonville. As of press time, the assailant is still at large. The week before that, a New Jersey trucker was shot and killed while trucking on eastbound I-10. This one, police say, was thought to be another trucker who pulled up beside him and fired.

Of course, the latest outbreak is a continuation of a history of many, many snipers. The Beltway, or D.C., snipers killed 10 people and injured three back in 2002.

Our Land Line staff clearly recalls how menacing it was when a guy was shooting at motorists here in the Kansas City area about two years ago. Most of us drove through the area (where I-70 becomes I-470) twice a day. The guy was shooting from his own car with a .380 pistol. There were about a dozen shooting incidents, and three people were injured. When they caught him, police said he seemed to have absolutely no motive.

How safe are you inside your truck?

How safe are truck drivers? Are those “heavy-duty” trucks that dwarf four-wheelers any safer than other highway vehicles? We asked Wayne Brown, president of Bodyguard Armoring, Austin, Texas. Brown has more than two decades of experience armoring vehicles and knows how to fend off bullets.

“Truck drivers are no safer than any other driver,” says Brown. “A .22 will go right through a truck door or window.”

Brown has a national reputation for bullet-proofing vehicles for clients. He says the basic handgun armor used consists of 3/8-inch Kevlar composite in the doors and body, and transparent armor that is 3/4-inch thick. It defeats handguns up to .44 Magnum.

To shield you from rifle shots at both metal and glass requires more protection. For truck drivers, both expense and additional weight are a consideration, and there’s plenty of square footage in a sleeper cab truck that can represent a target.

“Handgun protection in the doors, sidewalls, pillars, kick panels, etc. (not counting the roof, floor or transparent armor for windows) would probably add only a couple of hundred pounds,” Brown estimates. “Transparent armor glass in Level IIIA handgun protection is about 10 pounds per square foot.”

Brown says these windows must be custom-formed to fit the truck.

“I have done special request jobs where I have installed special multi-layered flat polycarbonate panels behind the vehicle’s OEM glass,” he says. “This is an effective but less costly method of protecting a vehicle.”

If you’re shot at?

What do you do?

OOIDA Director of Safety and Security Operations Doug Morris has been involved with transportation safety and security for more than 33 years. He represents OOIDA as the chairman of the Highway Motor Carrier Sector Coordinating Council of the Department of Homeland Security and as the secretary of the Partnership for Critical Infrastructure Security.

Before joining the staff at OOIDA, Morris was employed as a Maryland State Trooper, retiring in 2009 after 28 years of service. During his tenure with the Maryland State Police, he served as the assistant commander of the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division as well as the commander of the Transportation Security Section and Transportation Safety Division.

Morris has more than 500 hours in advanced training in transportation emergency management, disaster assistance and incident command.

We asked him what to do if you are shot at while you are at the wheel. While all situations are different, one rule is always the same. In those few intense moments, you must get as much info as you can.

“If you are getting shot at while driving, continue driving as efficiently and safely as possible. Call 911 with your location and follow the instructions of the police dispatcher,” said Morris. “If you know the shooter’s general location, report that to police as well. When in a safe area you may also want to warn other drivers on the CB if you have one.”

Morris said if you find bullet holes in your truck or trailer, contact police and file a report of where and when it occurred if possible.

Of course, if you are driving and you are hit, or a passenger is hit, pull to a safe area if possible. In the case of the trucker shot recently on the Dan Ryan, it was not feasible for him to drive. Afterward, witnesses say the tractor began veering and then stopped in the center lane. The wounded trucker got out and collapsed. Another motorist stopped and helped give medical assistance until paramedics arrived.

If you have a co-driver or passenger who has been wounded, Morris says to call 911 and while help is on the way, do your best to render aid.

A number of carriers with satellite communications in each truck have a personal danger code on onboard computers. PeopleNet for example, has one for drivers if they are in personal danger. Qualcomm has a “Macro” number if a driver is hurt or deathly ill and needs immediate help.

Can you call 911 from your cellphone from anywhere? Yes. Unless it’s in a “dead zone” – you should get through. The Federal Communications Commission requires that wireless service providers complete the 911 call, whether you subscribe to that provider’s service or not. In any instance, when placing a 911 call from a cellphone, you need to be prepared to give your phone number and specific location. If you cannot talk, emergency responders are faced with a challenge finding you. The good news is that the FCC does require your wireless service provider to now give the center accurate location info, up to 50 to 300 meters.

Tragic, true

In 1953, a roving shooter gunned down three truckers in separate incidents as they slept while parked in different locations off the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Two of the three truckers died. Whether you are driving or parked sleeping, true stories like this and the tragic reports of many others lend a darker meaning to phrases like defensive driving and the friendly “travel safe.”

The New York Daily News writer Mara Bovsun described the actions of the Pennsylvania Turnpike gunman and wrote in 1955 that it “forever changed the habits of interstate truckers, who learned that being encased in a steel behemoth offers no security against a maniac with a gun.” LL