Walmart honors truck driver for 3 million miles of safe driving
Published: Thursday, August 29, 2013 at 11:17 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 29, 2013 at 4:04 p.m.
It could have happened one day on Interstate 95 in South Carolina, when a pickup truck spun a smaller car off the road in front of him.
Or in Delaware, during the winter, when the roads were slick with ice and so narrow that drivers would knock each other's side view mirrors off if they traveled too close.
But through every obstacle, for more than 3 million miles, Johnny "J.R." Roberts never crashed, never picked up a speeding ticket, always stayed focused.
And after 28 years as a Walmart driver, Roberts, 54, of Macclenny, was honored Wednesday morning at the company's distribution center in Alachua for safely driving the equivalent of 120 trips around the Earth without a scratch.
Starting at 10 a.m., about 50 drivers, co-workers and managers gathered under a tent in the company parking lot to congratulate Roberts. White, blue and yellow balloons waved in the breeze. Heaps of lobster and chicken were piled on people's plates. Everyone smiled.
"This is a special ceremony," Zack Paulk, a general transportation manager at the Alachua branch Walmart, said.
"Truck driving is a tough business, but J.R. has an incredible attitude," said Paulk, who has known Roberts for more than 10 years since they both worked out of the Walmart in Douglas, Ga.
He pointed to a red carpet a short walk away from the tent. A royal-blue truck sat in between two bouquets of flowers. On the side, in white letters, were the words: "J.R. 3 Million Safe Miles."
Walmart honored Roberts by giving him a brand new Freightliner truck built from the ground up to his specifications that can be driven only by him until he retires. After his retirement the truck will be sold to ensure that no other Walmart driver will have ever operated it.
"From now on," Paulk said, "he's the only person who can drive that truck."
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To put his accomplishment in perspective, the average person in America drives around 100,000 miles every 7½ years, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Long-haul truckers on average drive 150,000 miles in a single year, Paulk said.
Roberts has safely driven more than six times the miles a typical person would in a lifetime, over every kind of road and through every kind of weather imaginable.
If there were a highway between the Earth and the moon, Roberts would have made that 477,714-mile round-trip more than six times.
No Walmart driver in Florida has ever completed 3 million safe miles, said Frank Jones, the human resources manager for the transportation office at the Alachua and Macclenny locations.
There are 72 drivers at the Alachua branch, Jones said, and a handful have logged more than 2 million safe miles of driving. Some are even approaching three. But Roberts was the first.
"He hasn't hit anything in 28 years," Jones said. "I can't say that about my personal record."
Roberts, who grew up in Jacksonville, said his interest in trucks started when he was in high school.
At 15, an uncle who owned a trucking business rolled through town. He let Roberts sit in the front seat. Everything about the experience entranced him: the shiny wheels, the machine's rumble as it lumbered into motion, its gargantuan size.
"As a kid you push little cars on a racetrack, but being inside a truck," he said, trailing off. "That was exciting."
He taught himself at 19, backing tractor trailers into the white lines of the parking lot at Pitman Produce in Jacksonville. After a few years working other gigs, he started with Walmart in Douglas, Ga. In 2007, he moved back to Florida, settling in Macclenny.
He said he thanks God for each mile. Fully loaded with a trailer, his rig weighs 80,000 pounds. And any number of variables can go wrong during a typical seven-hour drive.
"I know you can go out there and take the shortcuts," Robert said. "But I liked to do the right thing, the necessary thing, because it helps me in the long run."
Before each ride, he thoroughly inspects every element of his vehicle: the tail lights, the locks on the trailer, his horn. It takes 15 minutes, he said. "I might as well do it."
While driving, he said, his focus never wavers. He said he's thrilled to just be alive, let alone trucking.
If he gets lonely, he can pull over and make a phone call, or chat with other drivers on the radio. If he feels his eyes flutter, or if the road starts to look long and wavy, he pulls over to take a nap. "Don't push it," he said. "That's what I've learned."
In most drivers' eyes, it's a matter of understanding their body. They know how they're feeling because they have to.
"You're the commander of that ship," said Chuck Lobsiger, who's been driving 19 years for Walmart, "which means you're responsible. You make the calls."
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Roberts also attributes his mental focus to his stable home life. He met his wife, Clara, at a Jacksonville flea market more than 30 years ago, and she has stuck by his side ever since.
"If you don't have a supportive wife, your mind isn't going to be in the right place," Roberts said. "She's always had my back."
In Georgia, Roberts' schedule allowed him to be home every night around 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. He could see their three children as everyone was getting ready for bed. Here, he works through the week and returns home Saturday morning.
"I miss him," Clara Roberts, 52, said. "But he's a good provider. I can always trust him. And he never misses church. He even tithes appropriately."
Clara Roberts, who works as a nurse at Baker County Medical Services, said her husband is a giver, which is "what God wanted him to be, even before driving, or this (award)."
In the parking lot at Walmart, as the celebration wound down, Roberts joked with Paulk.
"You don't mind if I take a nap, do you, Zack?" he asked.
"No, safety first," Paulk said.
"Any wood to knock on, then?" Roberts said with a laugh. He stared at his new blue truck. "I don't want to jinx myself."