By Carson Gerber
Tribune staff writer
The distance around the Earth at the equator is 24,901 miles. By Richard Batt’s estimate, he could have driven around the planet nearly 24,100 times.
And he would have done it all in a semi without ever getting a single ding, scratch, nick or traffic ticket.
Batt, a 69-year-old truck driver and Kokomo native, recently was honored for achieving 3 million miles of safe driving with J.B. Hunt Transport, where he’s been employed the last 21 years. The award came with a hefty $20,000 bonus that Batt used to buy a white 2009 Pontiac Solis.
Out of the nearly 6,000 truckers currently working for J.B. Hunt, he’s only the 49th driver to receive the honor since the company was founded in 1961. To get the award, drivers can’t have any traffic tickets or preventable accidents.
“This is a very big deal,” said Bunny LePell, a company fleet manager who has worked with Batt for 14 years. “Twenty-one years. Three million miles. That’s impressive. He takes safety to a whole new level, and it’s not easy these days with all the road rage and crazy people out there.”
But Batt said he had a good mentor who first taught him the rules of the road — his dad, who also worked as a truck driver. Before that, his grandpa also drove big rigs.
“My dad put me behind the wheel of a semi when I was 16 years old and said, ‘Here it is. See what you can do with it,’” Batt recalled. “I think I had a log book imprinted on the side of my head from all the times he’d whack me for making a mistake. But he was a great, great teacher.”
Batt said he dropped out of high school when he was 17, and first thought about becoming an electrician after a neighbor offered him an apprenticeship with an electrical installation union. In the end, however, he decided against it.
“I always had an interest in electricity, but I said I didn’t want to do it,” he said. “I said I wanted to drive a big truck like Dad.”
And that’s exactly what he did when he turned 20 and landed his first driving gig with Dietzen Bakery in 1963, delivering McDonald’s hamburger buns to Louisville, Ky.
Batt said he drove for Dietzen for 14 years until it closed up shop. After that, he worked for a handful of different trucking companies until getting hired on with J.B. Hunt in 1991.
Thinking back on his lifelong trucking career, Batt said he’s driven rigs in every state in the contiguous U.S., and estimates he’s trucked more than 6 million miles.
So what’s made him stick with the job for so long?
“The freedom,” he said. “It’s the freedom of not having someone watching over your shoulder all the time. But that doesn’t mean I’m not safe.”
And safety is something Batt said he takes very seriously. He said he’s seen too many accidents out on the road not to.
“I’m always looking around when I’m driving,” he said. “Even at cars driving on the other side of the median. I’m a defensive driver, but I have to be driving up to Chicago every day,” he said, noting his current route takes him daily from Heberon, Ky., to Chicago delivering auto parts.
And Batt said he isn’t done driving yet. In fact, he said he plans to keep driving until he can’t pass the commercial driver’s license physical anymore.
“If I quite trucking and come home here and just sit, I’ll die —and I don’t want to do that yet,” he said.
When Batt does come home, he’s greeted by his wife, Lynda, whom he’s been married to for nearly 50 years. They have five kids, 14 grandkids and seven great-grandkids.
Batt admitted the lifestyle of trucker isn’t the best for raising a family. Sometimes he’d be out on the road for four weeks straight before returning home. But Batt said he’s never missed a high school graduation, wedding, Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Lynda said it could get tough sometimes raising the kids without her husband around, but it’s something she didn’t mind doing.
“We’ve had our arguments,” Batt said. “But if we had an argument and I was out on the road, I’d stop and we’d get things straightened out. You can’t have something like that weighing on your mind and drive at the same time. It’s not right.”
Someone with 3 million accident-free miles under his belt has a good excuse to brag, but Batt remains humble about his achievement. And the older he gets, the safer he becomes, he said.
“Like a lot of these kids out driving truck now, I thought I was indestructible when I was younger. But the older I get, the more these winters scare me,” he said. “Well, I don’t know if they scare me as much as I have a respect for them now.”
“I look at it this way: I’m no better than anybody else out on the road,” Batt said. “In the end, the man upstairs has just taken good care of me and I’ve used a good dose of common sense.”
Carson Gerber is a Kokomo Tribune reporter. He may be reached by phone at 765-854-6739, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.