HEBER CITY — Since Utah Truck Driver of the Year Steve Webb has driven 7 million miles without causing an accident, and since I’m thinking it's safe to assume none of the rest of us can make such a claim, the first question to him is obvious:
How in the world ?
His answer is just as obvious:
When you’re out there on the highway, “always drive ahead of yourself,” Steve says in a tone as matter of fact as using your turn signal and turning on your lights at night. “Don’t drive from your steering wheel to the end of your hood. Look down the road, pay attention to what’s out there. If you see brake lights up ahead on the next hill, slow down. A mile away and more, that’s how I drive.”
He’s been doing it for 51 years, ever since his father put him behind the wheel of a Kenworth and sent him from Heber City to Nampa, Idaho, to pick up a load of lambs and deliver them to Los Angeles. Steve was 16. He stood 4-foot-10 and weighed about a hundred pounds.
But by this time he’d driven his dad’s trucks — Blaine Webb and his brother, George, owned and operated Webb Bros. Trucking — around the yard and way out in the desert when nobody was watching plenty of times. He’d learned how to work both of the gearshifts, the main and the auxiliary, and often at the same time, back when there was no such thing as an automatic transition.
When Steve questioned why his dad was sending him instead of a more seasoned driver, Blaine Webb answered: “You drive as good as they do.”
And Steve did have his driver's license.
So off he went, all the way to Vernon Avenue in L.A., where he dropped off the lambs without mishap and then literally trucked it all the way home to Heber City, thus starting a driving career that has averaged 140,000 miles a year for over half a century, taken him through 49 of the 50 states (Hawaii being the exception) and earned him, at the Utah Trucking Association's awards banquet last fall, the title of the state’s greatest driver.
If it can be hauled, he’s hauled it. Gas, lumber, steel, sheep, cattle, rodeo stock, beer, produce, explosives, cars and trucks, cabinets, even a load of buffalo one time. For the past 17 years he’s driven exclusively for Wal-Mart, delivering pretty much everything it sells in its stores, which amounts to pretty much everything.
Lay out his miles end to end and he’s lapped the Earth at the equator 280 times. He’s driven the equivalent of 3,500 trips from Utah to New York. He couldn’t begin to tell you how many books on tape he’s listened to.
All that driving, and he’s never been at fault in an accident. He did total a semi once, not long after he started working for Wal-Mart. He was in Montana, in a snowstorm, and a little Pontiac Fiero passed his truck and then started spinning doughnuts in front of him. Steve had a choice: either run into the Fiero or veer over to the guard rail. He chose the guard rail and slid down it like a skateboarder. Fortunately, he rolled to a stop before falling into the chasm beyond. He walked away without a scratch, as did the two people in the Fiero, who otherwise would probably have been killed.
Over the span of 51 years he’s seen plenty of truck evolution: from no phones to CB radios to cellphones; from AM to FM to satellite radio; from Dave Dudley to Garth Brooks to Alan Jackson; from manual transmissions to 10- to 18-speed automatics; from no air conditioning and sometimes no heat and over-the-cab sleeper bunks to better climate control than a mall and behind-the-cab sleepers that look like a room at Residence Inn with running water, toilet, microwave, full-size bed and big-screen TV.
And yet, for all that, he waxes nostalgic about the old days, back to times when it was easier going, not so many rules and regulations, more camaraderie and A LOT better food at the truck stops.
“It’s no restaurants anymore; it’s all fast food,” he laments. A Subway next to a KFC next to a Pizza Hut next to a McDonald’s.
But now, as then, the life suits him. The solitude, the loneliness of the highway have never bothered him, he says. He enjoys his own company, and on occasion he’ll bring his wife, Sharon, along for the ride.
He takes pride in the fact he’s never been late in 51 years. It’s all part of the Plan Ahead strategy. “I like to be where I’m going an hour ahead of time,” he says. “My dad taught me that. If you’re early you never have to rush.”
At 68, he has no intention of backing off. He has great support — singling out his wife, his safety manager Brad Clayton and transportation manager Kevin Huggins at Wal-Mart — and wherever it is that great truckers go after they take the final exit, his dad Blaine.
“I owe him all the credit and then some,” says Utah’s Trucker of the Year. “As far as I’m concerned, I learned from the best.”
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: [email protected]