Watch this video Queen of the Road: Dan Rather Reports. Dan Rather is damned good at his job. I think there should be more journalists like him. On to the "meat" of this article.
The issues covered in the video are real. The running joke in the trucking industry usually involves a Swift Transport driver not being able to back up. Sometimes the joke runs true, sometimes it doesn't, but when you're involved in the trucking industry you can see where the problems lay. Trucking is all that different from any other industry. It's a cross section of humanity but in rigs that are hurtling down the highways at 65mph and at gross combined weights of up to (and sometimes over) 80,000 lbs. There is also a shortage of drivers. The trucking companies (the large ones) are like airlines. Moving product (freight for trucking, people for the airlines) is what counts. "Butts on seats" is what it is referred to. The trucking companies need their rigs to be moving in order to make money and people are required to drive those trucks. To the large trucking companies, the drivers are nameless, faceless "wheel holders" that are a necessary evil. It's not much different than working an assembly line for a large manufacturer. We shouldn't pretend to be shocked that workers are treated like cattle. It's always been that way. The critical difference is in the assembly line itself. If a machine operator fucks up, they could get killed. One person. If a truck driver fucks up, a whole busload of kids could get killed. That's a pretty big responsibility and the majority of drivers I've met in my line of work are aware of their responsibility to the public at large. A rather outspoken statement for a guy who just fixes trucks for a living? Sure. But there's more to it.
My employer requires me to keep a valid CDL (Commercial Drivers License). As a mechanic I often am required to road test big trucks and in order to road test trucks, must be able to do it legally. My employer "trained" me and payed for the written tests and the road test. My employer also pays for the medical examinations I am subjected to every two years. Fair enough. My "practical" training was mostly driving trucks into, and out of, the shop. After watching the video I linked to above, I had better training than a lot of actual drivers. I probably spent more time backing trailers in the shop's yard than I did driving forward. I drove a tractor (no trailer) with the boss exactly once. My major "on the road" training came one day when we had to do some container hauling. You see, we haul empty shipping containers, as a secondary business, for another company. This other company rents containers to people. The company finds the closest vendor, calls them, tells the vendor where the container needs to be and we deliver it. It's something providing income for our shop that isn't too much hassle. I spent a day with the boss delivering, dropping off and picking up containers. It was good practice, along with the stuff I did at the shop, for my road test. I passed my road test the first time and have held a valid CDL since. That's my personal experience as a driver. But what about my experience with the actual trucking industry? Next paragraph.
My experience with the trucking industry revolves around the service calls I run as a mechanic. I can split the industry into two components. The owner/operators and small "mom & pop" companies versus the big companies. Generally speaking (the exception makes the rule), the owner/operators and small companies take better care of their vehicles and have more experienced drivers. The big companies (think JB Hunt, Swift, CRST, Schneider etc.) usually have well maintained equipment, as far as can be expected for such large companies, but the quality of drivers is pretty bad. Don't think for one minute that I'm stereotyping these drivers. I do realize that most drivers for large companies are still wet behind the ears. Still, some of them shouldn't be driving a big rig. A couple of examples. I get a call service call requesting wrecker service for a truck that is stuck at a loading dock. I get out of bed, go to the shop, fire up the wrecker and head out to the location. I find the rig at a loading dock which hasn't been plowed (this is during winter by the way). I ask the "driver" to try and pull out of the dock so I can see what I'm dealing with. I only see the rear drive tires spinning. "Do you have the forward drive axle engaged?" I ask. I'm met with a blank stare. I climb the steps and look into the cab, "Put your hand on the right side dash panel and put your finger on a switch. Now, move your finger down one row. Move your finger to the right-most switch. That switch engages the forward drive axle and it will give you a little more traction. Flip that switch. See how the little light on the switch comes on? Now read the text below the switch. "Engage at any speed except during wheel spin out". Only flip that switch when you need extra traction. It's not meant for normal driving down the highway. Got it? Good." The driver flips that switch and is able to pull out from the loading dock. I had to get out of bed, drive to the location and teach the driver something they should already have learned. Repeat this situation as necessary. It isn't so much the driver's fault as it is the company's. The company needs "butts on seats" and the drivers need a job. A match made in hell. But what about the owner/operators?
Owner/operators (I call them "Independents") are usually more experienced. How did they get that experience? Most of them were company drivers at some point. They had to start somewhere, right? I hate to put it this way but it's the only way I know that will be easy for you, my dear reader, to understand. Owner/operators are trucking whores. At least in the beginning of their careers as owner/operators. A typical O/O started driving for a big company, realized they were just a number instead of a human and saved their pennies so they could buy their own truck and be their own boss. Those first trucks they own are normally pretty close to being worn out, but they have to work within their budget. The O/Os that make the wrong choice purchase, on a rent-to-own basis, a truck from their former "big company" employer. Not a great idea. Big companies buy trucks that are "economical", meaning they get a good deal from whomever will give them a good deal. Think Freightliner. Don't get me wrong, Freightliner makes some good trucks, but the majority of them end up being fleet units. I like to say they're the Chevy Cavaliers of the trucking industry. They do the job and are reliable, during the warranty period, and perform as expected. But, there's a catch. Freightliners (the Columbia model is an excellent example) are purchased by the big companies not so much because they're good trucks, but because they're fairly cheap. A big company will purchase a shit-load of Columbias (now called Cascadia) because they can get a good deal on them. Freightliner wants to sell trucks. Period. If a big company calls and says "I want 200 tractors with this, this, this and a red/white paint job" Freightliner is going to get a hard-on and give the customer what it wants. The company that buys these trucks will, most likely, run them for three to four years and then get rid of them. The Freightliner Columbia/Cascadia meets that demand and does it well. However, Freightliners don't age well in fleet service. The big companies know this. They have number crunchers to advise on things such as truck service life, maintenance costs etc. So, when the company driver decides he or she's had enough of the corporate bullshit and wants to go out on their own, the company, being run by number crunchers (Profit is priority number one!) knows that the "rebellious" driver is already familiar with the company equipment, is fairly new to the industry and is gullible, will present the driver with a "rent to own" program. The driver is made to think they're getting a good deal. The driver thinks "Gee, the company maintains their equipment pretty good and is willing to sell me, someone who wants to strike out on their own, one of these well maintained trucks... What can go wrong?" Plenty. Plenty of things can go wrong. These prospective O/Os are gullible as fuck and vulnerable to boot. Their only experience in the industry is with a company that doesn't give a crap about them as people. Freight. Moving freight is their only priority. Moving freight equals profit. Remember that. So, the company knows they have a "rebel" on their hands (they've seen it hundreds, if not thousands, of times before. Don't kid yourself). The company also knows they're going to be continuously turning over their inventory of trucks. What could be better than to make their inexperienced/gullible drivers think they're trying to "help" them by selling them one of their "quality" used trucks? It's a trap. The company gets to unload equipment that would have been replace anyway, they get to keep the services of the driver (who doesn't know any better), they don't have to pay for the now independent driver's benefits or insurance, they can dock the new O/O's pay for "maintenance" funds, conveniently provide at the company's own shops and the company, basically, owns that driver until that worn out truck is paid for. To put salt in the wound, by the time this naive O/O has paid for the truck, it's already worn out. A big company is not going to sell a truck that is still capable of making money. It's a trap a lot of noob drivers fall into time and again. I've fixed these trucks many, many times. Would you like to know how to spot these poor souls? It's easy. Look at the truck and find the "Leased to..." or "Operated By..." decals. If the truck those decals are on is either a Freightliner or Volvo (the big "fleet" truck brands) you can bet the person driving it is a brand new O/O. Are there exceptions? Sure. A lot of O/Os are hired guns that sell their services to whomever pays well. However, when you see the "Leased to..." decals on a truck and there isn't a shadow of another companies decals on the door, chances are the person who owns the truck has already been through the mill and has already been taken advantage of by some big company.
These wise O/Os sometimes start their own small companies. If you care to notice, these drivers are usually in their 40s. They usually had to get their start with some big company in order to gain experience and, in a lot of cases, their CDL. Once they have some experience these drivers find out they can get a better job with a smaller company that, sort of, gives a damn about their drivers. This is the point where drivers learn a lot about the business. The next step leads down two different paths. The semi-experienced drivers either get a better job or go out on their own. Only the smart drivers can make it on their own. If you meet one, ask them about their operating costs. The smart ones will be able to tell you, almost to the dollar, what they're spending on fuel, insurance and maintenance. These are the people you will, most likely, think of as the stereotypical over-the-road truck drivers. You probably won't meet the others because they weren't smart enough to run their own business. Now, what about the differences in safety?
As I've previously mentioned, big companies are mostly concerned with moving freight. Butts on seats. The slick recruiting campaigns and reduced (and mostly unregulated) training standards practically guarantee a steady stream of wheel holders. Bottom line. That's all the companies care about. If the company you're thinking about driving for has a recruitment video, you'll be a piece of meat. Nothing more. Recruitment videos indicate the company has a large demand for drivers. Why do they have a large demand for drivers? They have a large demand due to high turn-over rates. The question you would have to ask is "Why is their turn-over rate so high?" They treat their drivers like cattle. That's why the turn-over rate is so high. Therefore, the drivers are almost always new and inexperienced. Much more so if the company has their own "training" program. As mentioned in the video I posted at the beginning of this article, there isn't a whole lot of regulation when it comes to issuing people with a CDL. Taking into account the perpetual turn-over of drivers at these big companies (Swift, CRST, JB Hunt, Schneider, Covenant, US Express etc.) one can assume the driver behind the wheel of one of these companies' trucks is almost guaranteed to be inexperienced. The drivers that have been through the company CDL mill are going to be quite dangerous out on the road. They haven't been given enough training and are learning on the job. Learning on the job is just fine when a person is working in, say, a bakery. It's not OK when a person is learning while in control of a 40,000 ton machine that is sharing the road with everyone else. The system is broken and in a big way. Think about how often you see stories about gun violence on the news. If you own a firearm, you know how many hoops you have to jump through in order to own one. It's easier to get a CDL, and there are, probably, less guns in schools than there are inexperienced truck drivers sharing the roads with school buses. Here is where the owner/operator comes into play.
The typical O/O has been through a company mill. They've been taken advantage of, they've learned the hard lessons of trucking and they're hungry for change. A successful O/O will have started with a new (or, at least, a slightly used) truck. Overwhelmingly the trucks in question are going to be Peterbilt's or Kenworth's . You'll find a smattering of Volvos (think BMW motorcycle owners) and Western Stars, but PACCAR (the parent company to Peterbilt and Kenworth) is the popular choice. And for good reason. The common Peterworth (a slang term meaning either a Peterbilt or Kenworth truck) is built to outlast the warranty period. For those of you unfamiliar with big trucks, think of the Peterworth trucks (does NOT include the Peterbilt 387 or Kenworth T2000 series. These are worse than Freightliner Columbia models.) in more familiar pick-up truck terms. Peterworth trucks are like Ford trucks with the Lariat package or, similarly, the Chevy trucks with the Z71 package. Loaded, but not overly so. The Peterworth trucks, as previously mentioned, are built better, are easier to maintain and last longer than anything Freightliner currently offers. Mack trucks? They're total crap these days. The saying "Built like a Mack truck" has gone from being a compliment to being an insult. I hate Mack trucks with a passion. Mack hasn't made a good truck in the last twenty years. International trucks (since the introduction of the ProStar line) are also worse than Freightliners. International hasn't had a good truck since the S series and the old, square cab 4300 straight trucks disappeared. The main point I'm trying to make is that the experienced drivers and O/Os are mostly driving trucks that they know perform well. But, how does the safety aspect come into play?
A small time O/O knows that if his truck isn't rolling down the road, she/he isn't making money. Therefore, the typical O/O will spend more time and money maintaining their equipment. After all, a regular inspection is cheaper than a service call. The typical O/O will spend more time looking at their truck than a company driver. They'll notice fluid leaks and strange noises long before a company driver would. A company driver usually has the attitude of "It ain't my truck." If the engine starts, the brakes release and most of the lights work, the company driver is OK with that. Of course, each company has a handful of drivers who actually give a damn and will "write up" any problem, however minor, they come across. It's then up to the company to take care of the issue. But, some companies know they have their drivers by the balls (or ovaries) and will use their power or "drive or be unemployed" against the drivers. The sad reality is the driver assumes ultimate responsibility. The driver is "Pilot In Command" and therefore holds ultimate responsibility for whatever happens. The "I was told to falsify my log book" or "The company told me they would have the brakes fixed after this run" will NOT hold up in court. Or your conscience. If your dispatcher asks you to do something and the little voice in your head advises to the contrary, don't do it. You may lose your job, I won't lie, but you'll be able to sleep at night knowing you did the right thing and didn't willingly (PIC, remember) put others in danger. An O/O has already been through that situation and knows better. They are their own boss. If their truck is unsafe to drive, they are responsible for taking care of it. They are responsible for calling the customer and saying "Hey, my truck's brakes don't work and I'm getting it fixed right now. The load's going to be a few hours late." The customer may be pissed and not call you again. That's the risk and O/O takes.
As a mechanic I've dealt with experienced drivers and total noobs that were, obviously, put behind the wheel long before they were ready. As a mechanic (and you as a driver), there is a responsibility to make sure things are done in a safe manner. As a driver, you are responsible for knowing when something is wrong and I, as the mechanic, am responsible for returning that truck to you in a safe operating state. If either of us hear "we'll take care of it after this run..." we need to put our collective foot down and say "No!" Drivers also need to know they have the support of the government behind them. If a driver is getting the run around from his company where safety is concerned, that driver should be able to refuse operation of the vehicle in question without fear of getting fired. The trucking industry isn't quite to that point, but it's getting there. Slowly. How many more people will have to be killed before things change for the better?
Remember, YOU are the Pilot In Command. Thanks for reading.
04 April, 2014
We have yet another "new guy" at the shop. I've had to deal with a lot of piss-poor mechanics to get this one and I'm elated that he's with us. I'll refer to him as "Igor". Igor has the necessary skill set to make it in the crazy business of a truck shop (or any shop for that matter). He's young and just finishing up his education at the local tech school but he's smart. Really smart. He's had one job in a truck shop prior to arriving at our door so he has some experience. He can weld steel and aluminum, he can make stuff, his brain is hard-wired for troubleshooting problems, he has the right amount of paranoia ("Did I tighten that drain plug?)... Sure, he's still pretty green, but he remembers the lessons the rest of us are teaching him. Igor's very receptive to the "lessons" I have for him. For example, we had a customer come in with a KW T-600. One of the complaints was regarding the A/C belt not being there. I had already peeked under the hood before I put Igor on the job so I already knew what was needed to remedy the problem. After Igor was done poking around under the hood he came to me and said "It's needs an A/C belt." I replied "OK, is the tensioner OK? What about the idler pulley? Is the compressor seized?" He responded with "Uh, I didn't look at that stuff." I turned that into a lesson. Serpentine belts usually don't just break, something else causes them to fail. Sloppy pulleys, tensioners that don't tension the belt anymore, seized A/C compressors etc. I told him that I had already looked at it and knew where the problems lay. We both went over to the truck and I explained that whenever he was confronted with a missing/broken belt he should check everything that is driven by that belt. "Here, spin the tensioner pulley. Hear how it growls when you spin it? It's junk. Same with the idler pulley." Repeat this situation at least once a day. Each thing that us old farts can turn into a lesson makes Igor a better mechanic. What's even better is that Igor knows we're not being assholes by pointing out things he missed, he understands that we're teaching him. After all a diploma from a tech school is, really, only a license to learn. Igor also has some sense of financial responsibility. He's not constantly broke, he doesn't have a huge balance with the tool guys. He also isn't a habitual tool borrower. Being new, he knows he's going to need a lot of tools but doesn't really know what tools to get. If he borrows something from me more than a few times, he'll get his own, within reason. I wouldn't expect him to go out and buy a $300 puller set at this point in his career. That stuff can wait. But he has acquired the more rudimentary tools that he's had to borrow from me. This kid is definitely worth the time we'll spend on him. He's been such a breath of fresh air that I couldn't help but take him under my wing. I even let him put his tool box next to my tool box. The conversation at the end of the shift is just as important as the conversation during the shift. 'Ol Rob did the same thing for me when I was at the courier company. I have a responsibility to Igor. He has what it takes to be a good mechanic and my job is to help him develop his skills. I don't take that lightly. One of the previous "new guys" that I've written about wasn't worth the time. I knew it right from the start. The old guys like me can tell within the first week if a new guy is going to make it or not. Igor is going to make it.