The free and open-to-the-public event gives folks a chance to see drivers negotiate an indoor course with a truck that is not their own. They face challenges such as braking, parking, backing, maneuvering through tight spots, judging distances and depth perception within a predetermined amount of time.
To qualify, truckers such as Utah straight truck champion Judd Adams, of Taylorsville, must be accident-free for 12 months and win their state title. This is the fourth time Adams has competed in the nationals. He finished in the middle of the pack the first two years but qualified for Saturday's finals, when the top five drivers in each class face off.
"You need to be aware of safety when driving daily," said Adams, who covers a local route for Con-Way Freight. "If you are not focused on what you are doing, there are all kinds of hazards on the road."
Adams hopes for a home-course edge. If he were to prevail, he would not only earn the $1,000 first prize awarded by the ATA but Con-Way Freight also would buy him a $45,000 pickup.
According to the ATA, there has been a 75 percent jump in the number of registered large trucks in the past 20 years. But, in the past decade, the number of truck-involved fatalities has fallen by 28 percent and the number of truck-involved injuries has dropped by 39 percent.
"These professionals are the best of the best," said Jim Daulerio, of New Jersey, chairman of the event, which was last held in Salt Lake City nine years ago and is expected to bring 2,500 people to town. "They have to be accident-free day after day. The main objective is safety."
Oregon's Jeff Turner, safety manager for Con-way Freight, said the skills tests are designed to simulate challenges drivers must face every day such as approaching a scale, backing up into a loading area or parking a big rig in a tight spot. The competition is so demanding that touching a barrier or cone means zero points. In some tests, drivers have 18 inches to work with.
"Drivers practice on their own, sometimes with something set up in the yard," Turner said. "They are like a sharpshooter with a rifle. They practice and practice."
Utah's champion drivers
Straight truck: Judd Adams, Con-way Freight; three axle: Timothy Gober, Con-way Freight; four axle: Steven Tribe, Nicholas & Co.; five axle: Luke Wyatt, Old Dominion Freight Line Inc.; flatbed: Timothy Smith, YRC Freight; tank truck: Mark Davidson, Air Liquide; twins: Jeff Payne, Reddaway; sleeper berth: James Mansfield, Smith's Food and Drug Stores; step van: Daniel Brophy, FedEx Ground.
Competition at the Salt Palace continues Friday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and Saturday from 8 to 11 a.m.
Source: Utah Trucking Association
More than 80 percent of U.S. communities depend solely on trucking for delivery of their goods and commodities.
One in every 19 Americans is employed by the trucking industry, including 3.1 million professional drivers.
Trucks have overall crash rates less than half of other vehicles.
Professional truckers drove more than 397.8 billion miles in 2010, more than double 25 years ago. Most individual long-haul drivers average 100,000 to 110,000 miles a year.
The average daily run for an over-the-road driver is nearly 500 miles.
The trucking industry paid $36.5 billion in federal and state highway taxes in 2011 when it represented 9.8 percent of the vehicles on the road.
The trucking industry consumed 52.8 billion gallons of diesel fuel and gasoline in 2012.
Source: American Trucking Association