Gerlach drives into Circle of Honor

By Dean Shipley

March 29, 2014

UPS truck driver, Chuck Gerlach, has ascended to “elite” level. Gerlach, 55, of Fairfield Township, was recently inducted into the company’s “Circle of Honor” for 25 years of accident-free driving. He was among 64 Ohio-based drivers and 1,519 nationwide who have traveled thousands of miles without an accident and were inducted into the top tier of truckers.

“It’s something I’m very proud of,” said Gerlach, who took time on his lunch break in Pennsylvania for a phone interview.

He drives Mack Pinnacle tractor and trailer in his position as “feeder,” the company’s name for big rig drivers who traverse between two hubs. Depending on his run — a 570 mile drive from Columbus to Dubois, Pa. — his tractor will tow either a 53-foot trailer, two 28-footers nicknamed “pups,” or a 48-foot trailer. He said it all depends on load and volume.

Before Gerlach pulls out of the Columbus terminal, he performs a safety check on the rig, making sure all lights work, tires are properly inflated, mirrors are properly adjusted.

Once the safety check-off list is complete, Gerlach makes his way eastward on a heavily traveled route. He has to navigate through the Columbus rush hour driving eastward and the Akron rush hour on the return trip westward. The run out and back is timed at 11 hours, 27 minutes with a short break for lunch.

It’s a run Gerlach has driven since 2009. He likes it because the route is driven primarily during daytime hours. As with many jobs, Gerlach started in an entry-level position and worked his way up through the ranks.

That starter job was a part-time package unloading position in 1978. From that slot he moved to package sorter. By 1987, he had an opportunity to drive the iconic brown delivery van the company calls a package car.

Job openings are posted internally and in 1992 a posting was announced for a feeder position. Gerlach said at that point he was ready for a change and the feeder slot came with a boost in pay.

He took four weeks of feeder training on Saturdays and then had to pass a company-based road test and to qualify for a commercial drivers licence (CDL). He practiced moving empty trailers around the terminal before hitting the road with a full load.

Again as a feeder newcomer, he worked a lot of nights, driving in place of those who either called off or took a vacation.

“It was rough at first,” Gerlach said. “I had to work a lot of nights.”

Once he segued way to a regular feeder Gerlach’s safe-driving habits were reviewed occasionally by a supervisor. He had a 50-point check list of safety practices, which were checked against Gerlach’s driving. Any practices which deviated from the company’s safety checklist were noted and brought to his attention.

“They’re high on safety,” Gerlach said.

Part of that safety regimen includes an exercise to forestall fatigue. Gerlach said when a driver focuses on one spot on the road, it can eventually induce fatigue. To ward it off, he moves his eyes to his left-side and right-side mirrors, down to his gauges, checking the traffic just ahead and then far out ahead.

As he drives he endeavors to keep an assured clear distance from traffic in front of him. He also drives in a position so if something happens in traffic, “I leave myself an out.”

Logging thousands of miles per week, Gerlach has “seen it all” by distracted drivers around him: men reading a newspaper perched on the steering wheel; women applying make-up; talking and texting on the phone. The funniest unsafe practice he’s observed happened a number of years ago on a run to Bowling Green, Ohio. He saw sheet music hanging from a car’s windshield with suction cups and the driver playing a trumpet.

When he’s not driving he spends time with his wife of 26 years, Julie, working with wood, tinkering with a hobby auto, and fishing.

How long will he drive?

“Until I’m tired of it,” he said. There is no mandatory retirement age so he’ll drive as long as he can pass the physical.

Ohio boasts 305 active Circle of Honor drivers with a combined 8,568 years of accident-free driving. On their uniform, they wear a patch that signifies their Circle of Honor status. There are 4,326 total UPS drivers in Ohio. Globally, 7,221 active UPS drivers are members of the Circle of Honor. Collectively they’ve rolled up over 198,000 years and more than 5.3 billion safe miles during their careers. That’s enough miles to travel to Mars and back 19 times.

“My thanks go to all of them for their dedication and focus, and for the countless lives they’ve saved,” said George Brooks, president, UPS East Region.

Dean Shipley can be reached at (740) 852-1616, ext. 17 or via Twitter @DeanAShipley.