It's time to recognize your drivers as professionals - who all too often must become heroes, too

We all know what happens every spring. Besides baseball, that is. Just as surely as the swallows return to Capistrano, April marks the start of the six-month-long migratory season of the bird we'll call the amateur motorist.

Truck drivers know these dodos and all their subspecies all too well. Whether Sunday-driving city dwellers, suburbanites taking the family car on vacations, or retirees piloting outsized RVs coast to coast, these drivers put themselves and others at risk due to appalling skill levels, ignorance of highway safety, or just plain stupidity.

Often all that stands between these amateurs and certain disaster is the professional driving prowess and the heroics of individual truck drivers.

Every time a trucker hits the pavement, he or she must shoulder several burdens. Above all, there is the charge to complete a paying task while being responsible for the safe handling of an expensive piece of equipment hauling another party's goods.

On top of that, the truck driver must contend with inconsistent regulatory enforcement, poor road and weather conditions, and time away from home.

If that weren't all, the trucker must also keep eyes peeled for the non-professional drivers who have the potential to wreak havoc up and down the road. That's not to say truck drivers are blameless in every severe accident. Even as individuals and the industry as a whole struggle to educate the media and the public on the professionalism of the vast majority of truck drivers, someone will always manage to smear that record.

The latest case sprang up as this issue went to press. A trucker hauling a load of steel was implicated in the crash of an Amtrak train outside Chicago that claimed nearly a dozen lives.

The driver was not accused of racing a crossing gate. Instead, according to an eyewitness, he tried to weave between the set of lowered gates in a sort of life-and death slalom event. However the official investigation pans out, most people will remember only the early news reports that pointed the finger of blame squarely at the truck driver.

But just as certainly, no motorist assisted by a truck driver will forget the positive impression of trucking anact of professional kindness leaves behind.

Just as lawyers have a sworn duty to act as officers of the court, truck drivers usually sense they have an obligation to help others who share their professional workspace.

Driving that message home are several notable programs sponsored by industry groups and suppliers. Each seeks to recognize the inestimable role truck drivers play in ensuring the safety and well-being of all motorists.

The two most prominent programs are the "National Highway Hero Program" sponsored by Goodyear Tire & Rubber, and the "Highway Angel" program co-sponsored by the Truckload Carriers Assn. (TCA) and Volvo Trucks North America.

The "Highway Hero" program seeks to recognize truck drivers who have "gone beyond the call of duty in performing heroic rescues or outstanding acts of humanitarianism."

Nominees for the designation are accepted from the general public and judged by a panel of industry experts. Awards are presented to the finalists and the driver named "North America Highway Hero" of the year in ceremonies held just before the starting flag is dropped at the Daytona 500.

Last month at the Mid-America Trucking Show, but too late to report here, Goodyear announced the 1998 North America Highway Hero.

He was drawn from a distinguished field of five finalists: Christopher Sackos, a self-employed driver out of Lawrence, Mass.; Wayne Carpenter of Keene, N.H.; Jamie Pritchard of Elk Park, N.C.; and Michael Asselin and Mark Savarie of ETI Transport Ltd.

More information can be obtained from Goodyear's Web site: www.goodyear.com/about/commun/heroes.html.

The TCA/Volvo Highway Angel program is dedicated to honoring truck drivers for "their unusual kindness and courtesy to others while on the job." Drivers may be nominated from any company, not just fleets belonging to TCA. Hundreds of drivers have already been recognized as Highway Angels. To find out how you can nominate a driver, contact TCA at 703-838-1950 or e-mail Angel@truckload.org.