A milestone of a million miles

As a little boy, Mike Blansett sat on the front porch, watching trucks go by.

He told his parents he wanted to be a trucker when he grew up.

This year, the Charlotte Frito-Lay driver celebrated the career milestone of 1million miles driven, accident free. Now, he proudly wears his million-mile ring – a trucker's equivalent of a Super Bowl ring.

“It's something I've always wanted to do,” said Blansett, who loves the freedom of being on the road. “I'm a very independent person. Most truck drivers are. At Frito-Lay, they appreciate it. They know we're going to get the job done.”

He's one of about 9,800 people working in truck transportation in Mecklenburg County, the heart of one of the nation's largest trucking and distribution hubs.

Only a fraction of the nation's 3.4 million drivers reach the accident-free, million-mile mark. Drivers who reach the goal are often feted at company banquets like Frito-Lay's gathering earlier this year at its Plano, Texas, headquarters. The industry credits the program's stringent accident-free requirement with improving safety.

Frito-Lay says it has helped reduce collisions by about two-thirds during the past 10 years.

For its drivers, reaching the first million miles takes an average of 10 years. About 300 of the snackmaker's current 2,000 drivers have attained at least 1million miles. Blansett was one of nearly 90 to reach the mark during the last year. That makes him one of 27 locally, out of a driving force of 68.

A colleague, Phillip Fulp, is one of the three Frito-Lay drivers who have attained 3million miles.

“It's a pretty awesome accomplishment,” said Clayton Boyce, a spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, which sponsors the driver appreciation week. “In many cases, companies will dock you, even if an accident is someone else's fault, if you could have avoided it.”

Blansett, who is 43 and single, started driving in 1988 from his Pennsylvania hometown of Jeannette, about 25 miles from Pittsburgh. A job transfer for his father brought his parents to Charlotte. A member of their church who worked for Frito-Lay mentioned he was looking for drivers. Blansett relocated to join the company here in 1994.

He says his pay nearly doubled at the start. Raises have afforded a comfortable living, enabling him to buy a house in Charlotte's Ballantyne area. Like Blansett, many of the plant's drivers have been there more than 10 years, evidence of competitive pay and benefits in a high-turnover industry.

The Charlotte plant, one of more than 30, has nearly 600 workers and makes such top brands as Lay's and Ruffles potato chips, Fritos corn chips and Sunchips.

Blansett typically makes two-day roundtrips of roughly 1,500 miles between Charlotte and other Frito-Lay plants. The supplies he packs often include his favorite Frito-Lay snack, crunchy Cheetos.

Last Friday, shortly after 7 a.m., he returned from one of his favorite runs, to the plant in Frankfort, Ind. He'd left about 2 a.m. on Wednesday, hauling Sunchips snacks, heading through West Virginia's farms and mountains and Kentucky horse country. He returned loaded with wheat flour to make more Sunchips.

During the day, he enjoys the scenery. He listens to satellite radio and audio books. And he's watching.

“You have to be alert at all times,” he said. “You keep your head moving, keep your eyes moving.”

Too often, he sees drivers who aren't focused, who dart around him, unaware of what it takes to stop a 40-ton rig.

“Ninety percent of the near accidents I see is someone that is using a cell phone or not paying attention. They're putting make-up on, reading a newspaper or magazine while they're driving.”

Still, he's enjoyed his 20 years on the road and never considered another post. He advises would-be truckers to understand safety has to be on their mind every minute behind the wheel. They also need to understand it's a lonely job.

“They have to be able to spend time alone,” he said. “You've got to be comfortable with that.”