Distracted drivers were responsible for the deaths of 3,450 people on U.S. highways in 2016, according the the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Distracted driving is an issue that hits close to home for Chris Outen of FedEx Freight.
When Outen was just 12 years old, he lost his father to a car accident. Now 56, Outen preaches safe driving every day whether he’s on the road, advocating for the industry as an America’s Road Team captain, or competing at a truck driving championship.
He’ll be taking that message to the national stage for the ninth time after winning the sleeper berth class and Grand Champion honors at the Oregon Truck Driving Championships on June 16.
Outen’s goal for the Oregon championships is to earn a first place in all nine of the classes at state, and he is almost there with victories over the years in Straight Truck, 3-axle, 4-axle, Twins, Tank Truck and Sleeper Berth. Outen also has been named Grand Champion twice before, 2011 and 2017.
Who: Winners from nine categories at the state level advance to the national competition, with a grand champion crowned
What: Contestants are judged on a written examination and their driving skills
When: Aug. 15-18
Where: Columbus, Ohio
In 31 years of driving, Outen has racked up 1.6 million safety miles and is proud to have become an America’s Road Team Captain.
While Outen is an accomplished truck driver, he initially had no interest in the profession. For five years, Outen had worked his way up to assistant manager at a grocery store. However, after losing his job, Outen entered another field that led him to the trucking industry.
“At the time I lived in Boise, Idaho, I just needed a job and my brother worked in the trucking industry. He worked for Viking Freight, so he said ironic enough I can get you a job working on the dock if you want to. I said that’s fine but there is no way I’d become a truck driver. But I absolutely fell in love with it and here I am over 30 years loving every single day of it,” Outen said.
Despite his initial hesitance to go into trucking, Outen still held a high appreciation for truck drivers.
“Twice a week I would open the store early and allow the trucks to come in, so we would unload our freight for the store, and our dock was in a little back alley. I remember being so impressed with that truck driver who would back that trailer up to that dock, thinking, ‘I don’t know how anybody can do that,’” Outen said. “Now, here I am doing it.”
Outen clearly remembers his first solo trip from Boise toward Twin Falls on Interstate 84.
“Back then they would just put you right into it and I was so afraid because it was three trailers and I had never been out on my own even with a single. I remember my driver trainer at the time told me, ‘Whatever you do, don’t look back,’” Outen said. “I was wondering why he meant that and when I got down the road about 10 miles, this highway was known as being really rutted. I looked back at that back trailer and it just looked like a dog’s tail wagging a little bit. I knew that after I completed that trip with the triple that I could drive just about anything. If I could do that, I would be fine with just one or two trailers.”
Since that first trip, Outen’s love for trucking has only grown, and he can’t imagine going back to the grocery business.
“The one great thing about trucking is I never have to look at the clock really. Every day seems like it is 2-3 hours long. As soon as I start, I’m out there making my deliveries to my customers and making my pickup. Then it is time for lunch and then it’s the end of the day,” Outen said.
Over his career, Outen has learned one valuable lesson.
“One of the most important things I’ve learned in my 30-plus years is to be a defensive driver, which means I don’t make any mistakes — well, I overcome the mistakes of others. In this day and age, our roads are so congested and we have so many distracted drivers out there who are on their cell phones, eating, putting on makeup and everything,” Outen said.
Even before becoming a truck driver, road safety always had been an issue that was close to Outen’s heart. Outen was just 12 when his father was killed and his mother had to take care of him and his two brothers. The sudden loss changed his family, and it also changed the way Outen sees driving.
“You come to realize the most precious cargo that we have isn’t in the back of our trailers, but in the cars and vehicles around us. You know, moms and dads, sons and daughters,” Outen said. “You have to make sure that you are staying safe and they can get home safely to their families. Like I say, make sure to overcome the mistakes that they make.”
In 2017, Outen became an America’s Road Team Captain, where he has been able to further push the importance of road safety. Through outreach programs such as Share the Road and Touch a Truck events, Outen demonstrates the importance of safety and shares his story about his dad to kids and teens.
“I was talking to some kids about Share the Road and as sad as this sounds, one of the girls, as I was talking about my father, was sitting in the front just crying and I knew that I had touched that girl, and that she would go out and be safe and put her cellphone down and put her seat belt on,” Outen said. “The fact that you know that you are changing lives in a positive way and getting that awareness out there — that’s why I do America’s Road Team. I don’t do it for the accolades or for the recognition. I want to make a difference and be able to use my experience, skills and knowledge to teach others to be safe out there on the road and highway.”
Other Oregon winners headed to nationals are:
- Ronald Zieser of FedEx Freight in 3-axle
- Heladio Fernandez of FedEx Freight in 4-axle
- Kirby Ferber of FedEx Freight in 5-axle
- Manuel Cruz of FedEx Freight in Flatbed
- Steve Chalupa of FedEx Express in Step Van
- John Van Buren of Reddaway in Straight Truck
- Brian Smith of Walmart Transportation in Tank Truck
- Jerry Lambert of FedEx Freight in Twins