You can't even climb into Alan DeWitte's truck without a safety briefing.
"Three points of contact," DeWitte said, opening the door of his cab and pointing to plastic handles and stainless steel steps. "You want two hands and one foot, or one hand and two feet."
Only after I had absorbed this lesson was I allowed to begin the least hazardous reporting assignment imaginable: a ride to the Land O'Lakes Walmart Supercenter with DeWitte, 61, who recently became the first driver in the 21-year history of the company's Hernando County distribution center to cover 3 million miles without causing an accident.
That's six trips to and from the moon, 120 times around the Earth and more than 30 times farther than I made it before totaling my last two cars, which is one reason that I wanted to know more about DeWitte's accomplishment. I couldn't imagine being so careful for so long, "as good the last mile as the first one," said his boss, transportation manager James R. Smith.
Also, it's a sign of the vastness of a distribution system that we rarely see and routinely take for granted. We expect our Supercenters to be fully stocked and don't think much about what it takes to make that happen.
With more than 1,000 workers, the center rivals the county's two hospitals as Hernando County's largest private employers. The corrugated steel building covers 39 acres. When DeWitte led me inside to see the electric-blue, brand-new work truck that will be presented to him on Friday as his reward for hitting the 3 million-mile mark, it looked as if it were parked in the middle of a slightly scaled-down city — ceiling-high stacks of merchandise like blocks of office buildings, forklifts buzzing up and down the aisles like traffic on busy streets.
The center, the first in the state, is now is one of six. DeWitte is one of 110 drivers there. Because of his seniority, his route allows him to return home to Spring Hill and his wife, Donna, every evening. But starting at 4 a.m., he hits enough destinations that his itinerary sounds like a condensed Central Florida version of I've Been Everywhere. Stops include the Brooksville Distribution Center (actually near Ridge Manor), stores in Inverness and Valrico, beverage depots in Tampa and Ocala, another distribution center in Arcadia.
It adds up to "10 drop-and-loads," 500 miles and close to the maximum of 11 hours that truckers can legally drive each day, five days a week. His truck is usually filled close to capacity, about 38,000 pounds. The company did not disclose the total tonnage that passes through the distribution center every year, but, clearly, it's a whole lot.
The easy, 70-mile drive to Land O'Lakes and back was assigned to him for my benefit, I found out after we left, and not part of his usual schedule. But it was typical in most other ways.
His load was general merchandise rather than groceries, though the only specific items listed on his bill of lading were the few hazardous ones, including a case of disposable butane lighters and camp stove fuel.
He entered the information about his load and trip on a small computer. He checked the gauges measuring the air pressure of his brakes. He fastened his seat belts, of course, and made sure that I did, too.
"This company is so safety conscious that you just always have to watch what you do," he said, once the truck was headed south on Interstate 75, the elevated seat in the cab providing an excellent view of the rolling fields and lakes in southern Hernando.
All Walmart trucks are fitted with a governor that sets the maximum speed at 65 mph. The newer trucks also have an OnGuard radar system that tells drivers how far they are following behind the vehicle in front of them, and flashes when they get too close. With the cruise control on, the system even adjusts the truck's speed to keep a safe following distance.
Not long ago, when DeWitte was driving at night in a thick fog in North Florida, his OnGuard flashed, telling him a car that he couldn't yet see was traveling 10 mph only 120 feet ahead.
"Sure enough, there it was, crawling along," he said. "That saved my bacon right there."
That's one reason for his safety record, DeWitte said. Unlike some other drivers, he's always embraced modern technology, has always been eager to distance himself from the image of the 1970s-era outlaws a lot of us still picture when we think of truckers.
In Smokey and the Bandit, Jerry Reed wore some of the bushiest mutton chops in cinema history. DeWitte is white-haired, clean shaven and wears a permanent-press white Walmart shirt with his high-waisted jeans.
On the dash near a computer is a CB radio that is almost always quiet and satellite radio that is usually tuned to a light jazz station. The bed in his sleeper is as neat as an Army cot. About the only time he isn't a complete company man is when a dispatcher calls on weekends to ask if his truck can be temporarily assigned to a smoker.
"I have to tell them no," he said. "Some people think I'm a little bit anal about the way I keep up my cab."
It may seem as though the old ways were more fun, he said. But they weren't.
The stereotype of the pill-popping, logbook-doctoring trucker grew out of the desperation of owner-operators who had to run themselves into the ground and endanger the public to keep up with their bills.
Though DeWitte was never an independent, he did work for companies that weren't as careful as Walmart about safety, that didn't grant drivers the right, as Walmart does, to pull over if they decide driving conditions are too hazardous.
In the early 1990s, when he heard from other Florida truckers about the working conditions at Walmart — and that it was opening a distribution center in Hernando County — he was so eager to work for them that he accepted a temporary assignment in Indiana before returning to Florida in 1993.
He doesn't mind the regimentation at Walmart, doesn't mind that his performance is monitored by bosses who look at computerized data and the public that sees the trailers — "53-foot-long billboards," he called them — complete with a toll-free number to report unsafe driving.
It suits him, he said, because he was brought up on a Minnesota dairy farm where the assumption was that jobs would be done correctly and without complaint. The same was true of his Vietnam-era stint in the Navy, he said.
"It was just always expected that you do your job right."
And very, very carefully.