Darrell "Dee" Howard is 85, but he is nowhere near retiring. He is an engineer, a man who made his living and reputation developing safety components for the aircraft industry. He has won numerous awards for his work on such things as jet thrust reversers, which help slow aircraft after landing. But Howard, a blunt-speaking Texan, has embarked on another mission: "We need to stop people from killing themselves and everybody around 'em in these big trucks," he said.
He said that to me eight years ago in a dinner interview at a Washington hotel. His campaign seemed noble. Who doesn't want to make the road safer for 18-wheelers and their drivers and for all of us in traffic with those rolling leviathans? But Howard's solution seemed so esoteric back then; it was so engineering-nerdy that it flunked every sex-appeal test the few of us in the media who would listen were willing to give it.
How do you get editors to give up print, or air, space for something called the "Howard Power Center Steering System," which is designed to reduce the fatigue of drivers of heavy trucks? Not easily or readily.
There were a few stories; and those of us who wrote and aired them considered ourselves as having fought the good fight. We moved on to other things. But old man Howard, it turns out, is one persistent dude. He kept working on his power center steering device -- testing, correcting, redesigning and redeveloping, and finally perfecting it.
A Howard company -- River City Products Inc. of San Antonio -- hired B. "Red" Chester as vice president and general manager to talk to trucking companies and truck industry regulators globally. Chester, a 70-year-old Kentuckian, was as tireless as his benefactor in pursuing potential markets; but both Howard and Chester kept slamming into walls.
"It seems," said Chester, "that everybody wants more safety, but nobody wants to pay for it if it means adding several hundred dollars to the cost of a truck."
But Howard and Chester and their River City minions soldiered on, persuading big over-the-road carriers to give the company's driver-fatigue-reducing technology a try and getting the Department of Transportation's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to examine their device.
The government looked at Howard's system, as well as the offerings of several competitors, and has now rendered a favorable ruling, available for public review in Transportation Research Board Paper #05-1234.
All of the examined "fatigue management technology" devices helped the tested over-the-road drivers remain alert, although the systems that were studied accomplished their goals in different ways, a summary of the TRB paper said. For example, a device called SleepWatch, manufactured by Precision Control Design, is a wrist-worn monitor of hand and arm steering motions. When the monitor, using an algorithmic formula, detects potentially dangerous variations in arm and hand movements, possibly caused by fatigue, it sounds an alarm to alert the driver.
But the Howard module -- a two-part, hydraulically operated device installed in a truck's steering system -- is designed to actually reduce the work of turning the steering wheel back and forth, a wearying action that many big-truck drivers describe as "fighting the steering wheel."
According to the TRB report, which the government says was based on "millions of inservice miles" of testing the Howard Power Steering System and competitive devices in heavy buses, trucks and recreational vehicles, "drivers were significantly more enthusiastic about the benefits" of the Howard system than they were about those offered by rival devices.
That's a home run. But moving something like a power-steering safety device from federal approval to commercial acceptability involves a game of many innings. At 85 and 70 years old, it's easy to speculate that Howard and Chester may not have enough gas to keep going. But don't waste any breath asking them.
"You ever hear of that 'Old Dog Cologne No. 9?' " Chester said. "Old dog what?" I asked.
"Old Dog Cologne No. 9," said Chester. "Dee and I are two old dogs. We just slap on some of that No. 9 and keep on going. We'll get there." Here's betting that they will.