When Trucking And Shale Meet

Shale energy is the exploration of rock formations to harvest oil and natural gas resources. In some corners, industry advocates say that shale exploration has resulted in nearly half-a-million jobs and hundreds of billions in economic growth. In the states where much of the exploration and extraction takes place, there are side benefits that impact other industries, such as trucking.

Companies must be ready to capitalize on the opportunities the shale boom market provides. But first, they need to develop a comprehensive understanding of the shale industry and how to harness it for their benefit.

There are essentially three different ways the continued North American shale expansion can play to the benefit of motor carriers and truck drivers:

  1. Higher demand for trucking services.
  2. Easing of worker and supply shortages.
  3. Handling regulatory changes.

It is important to note that the increases in shale exploration have already led to higher trucking industry growth. Take Ohio trucking companies as one example. When they were asked about increased trucking activity, they reported that a significant chunk of that activity came from transportation work within the shale sector.

Nationally, some estimates have put higher shale exploration and extraction as being responsible for up to 16% of the increased growth trajectory. Within regional markets, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Colorado, numbers are even higher.

Specific trucking sectors benefiting the most from shale growth are motor carriers operating within the tank and dry van sectors, with the tank sector experiencing the most growth. For infrastructure growth, flatbed, van, and specialized trucks are in high demand.

Will shortages of equipment become a concern? According to the American Trucking Associations, new equipment purchases are merely replacing aging trucks, rather than adding to fleet capacity. With shortages on the horizon, motor carriers across the country are considering acquisition as a way to stem the equipment shortage bleeding. Yet, the potential equipment shortage isn’t the only shortage the industry is worrying about.

Although some say conventional wisdom dictates the shale boom will only make the truck driver shortage more acute, others say that the resulting demand is raising pay and compensation packages so high potential truck drivers will come flocking. Are the numbers bearing that out?

How Shale Impacts Trucking Wages

There is little doubt the Permian Basin shale-oil boom has had a big impact on truck driver compensation. With sales revenues at these companies hitting record highs, they are betting the farm on bigger dollar signs to bring in more talent.

If there is one thing to remember, it is that even though the economy is on fire, fire is a dangerous thing. Oil rig counts have climbed by nearly a third in the past year and companies involved with the sector are feeling the increased demand. The last thing anyone wants is for the sector to overheat and undergo a contraction. Yet, the Permian Basin covers more than 75,000 square miles in west Texas and southeastern New Mexico. That’s a big region. All you have to do is step inside colleges in the area to see that schools are packed with people taking the test to get their CDL license.

Why? Just ask anyone. One student at New Mexico Junior College put it simply when he said that a CDL license was a golden ticket just about anywhere within a 500-mile radius of the Permian Basin. With the same true for shale booms in the Midwest, wages are rising. The same student stated that he expects to make six figures working for a transportation and energy services company once he graduates and obtains his CDL.

With so much money flowing into motor carrier coffers, better benefits are being dangled as a potential solution. Profits are on the rise, so potential truck drivers are under the assumption they can hold out for the best possible offer, and in many cases, they are getting it.

The Permian Basin Dominates

In what may be a surprise to many, nearly half of all rigs that currently operate within the United States do so within the Permian Basin. Oil and gas production are not the only drivers of growth within the basin either. Truck drivers are needed to transport the oil as well as the sand and water used in the fracking process.

Ask anyone within the oil and gas sector and they will tell you Permian Basin pipelines are filled to the brim, which in turn is forcing producers to truck oil hundreds of miles to market. What is the result? A truck driver bidding war underway in west Texas and New Mexico.

The U.S. unemployment rate is at an 18-year low, at 3.8%, and trucking companies are not only competing with each other, but they are also competing with the very construction, oil, and gas company that they haul freight for. The area around the Permian Basin is no exception.

All throughout the region, trucking companies are hanging out their help wanted signs, raising base wages, increasing sign-on bonuses, and coming up with evermore creative ways to entice new truck drivers to hop in their cabs.

It is now typical for Permian Basin truck drivers to command over $100,000 in base wages, which is double the $53,000 per year average long-haul truckers are bringing in. Meanwhile, average truck driver pay for private fleet work on a nationwide level has hit $86,000. Could it be that the big jump in shale pay is acting like the rising tide that lifts all pay wage boats?

Paid Training and Benefits

Many motor carriers operating within the Permian Basin are even hiring on truck drivers based on the interview or other non-mitigating factors alone. If they like the individual, they will hire them on the spot, then send them for CDL training and include it as part of the truck driver’s benefits package.

Fleets are also doubling down on the more unconventional benefits they have been investing in since the economy began to improve. From gyms back at headquarters to one hundred percent paid health benefits – sometimes even for independent contractors – fleets are stepping up to the plate to ensure the nation’s vital energy needs are met. Fortunately, that’s good for both businesses and their employees.

Yet, some wonder if there is too much uncertainty within the oil and gas sector to support a sustained employment drive. Consider that when crude prices took a huge drop in 2014, many companies were left with excess equipment and shrinking employment rolls. What will they do if this happens again?

Maybe not. The boom has also given motor carriers and haulers more leverage with shale drillers. Owner-operators working within the region are seeing deals locked in for six months at a time, providing wage stability, but also security knowing the suppliers believe in the strength of the market.

An Industry on Fire

It is important to consider our mention of the problem with fire. There could be signs of overheating, never mind the concerns surrounding the price of oil. Crude trailers that used to sell for between $20,000 and $25,000 are now going for $30,000 and $35,000 on up.

Also, some motor carriers are worried that costs are rising faster than prices can keep up with. In some management meetings, trucking companies are wondering if they should prioritize one field over another. Some fields within the Permian Basin have become so high-cost that operators must reallocate their resources and divert trucks to less competitive fields.

Some ask: Where are all the pipelines? While it was true there was plenty of capacity when prices were lower, output has risen far faster than companies have been able to set up new pipelines. Still, companies have been hard at work building them.

If the situation does not dramatically change, trucks would need to haul nearly half-a-million barrels of crude out of the Permian Basin to keep up with demand by mid-2019. By then, new pipeline capacity can lighten the load. Until then, there is a real fear that oil operators could themselves pullback slightly as a result of higher costs.

Whatever happens, right now is a good time to be a truck driver or fleet operating within the Permian Basin. While the price of oil is stable, and the economy continues to improve, there is energy to be hauled and money to be made. Smart operators will be poised to capitalize on the boom to be prepared for the bust.

Capitalizing on the promise of a partnership between shale and trucking will require companies to be nimble, flexible, and ready to shift as market demand requires. Furthermore, fleets must be knowledgeable and compliant with Federal transportation laws and oil and gas laws at the state level. In an ever-evolving market, the Permian Basin plays an important role. Truckers can monopolize on this energy boom.

How Trucking Companies Address The Diesel Technician Shortage

With many diesel technology courses popping up at career and technical institutes across the country, many wonder how long it will be before the trucking industry’s diesel technician shortage begins to let up. With a growing number of schools, industry, and fleet operations working hard to address the mounting technician shortage, some think the shortage may not be as acute as initially thought.

The fact is, more schools are seeing the advantages of reaching kids with this curriculum at far younger ages and making changes to the overall curriculum to provide a pathway to a technical education. If kids are mentored throughout high school and technical school, then following through with their education and reaching industry-level employment is not such a far-off prospect.

When a student at a technical college completes a certification program with a company and then gets hired into that company, the validation of the program becomes apparent. Still, there are minds to change on the matter. Why? Because on the surface, when you need a technician immediately, investing in a high school or technical college student seems pointless when it could be three to five years before said individual might even by employed by your company.

Yet, the trucking industry faces a sobering reality. The industry needs an estimated 29,000 diesel technicians by 2024. In order to meet the forecast demand, companies and schools must adjust their strategy. Fortunately, work has already begun. A three-pronged effort that partners business groups with educational institutions and fleets operations can help meet the growing demand.

No one company can single-handedly ease the truck driver shortage. Companies must all be rowing in the same direction to meet the need. One of the big problems remains large players who are sitting on the sidelines waiting for an external fix to the problem.

School Districts Come to the Rescue

In January of 2018, the Fresno Unified School District broke ground on a $9 million, state-of-the-art trades facility for high school kids looking to get some solid workplace experience in before graduation. The school district’s superintendent says the facility is designed to help students find jobs with companies who are already involved with school training, lending their experience, suggestions and know-how.

The Fresno project does not stand by itself as the only project of this type ongoing in other municipalities across the country. These programs are designed to prepare students to apply their knowledge and skills to the specialized maintenance of and repair of trucks, buses and other commercial motor vehicles.

Students who complete these programs end up NATEF-certified and able to enter the workforce as capable diesel technicians with the knowledge necessary to work on not just diesel engines, but also drivetrain components, suspension, steering, brake systems and more. Many programs also offer training on HVAC systems and electronic systems.

Even better, students who complete these programs also learn about algebra and geology. These tech programs offer half-a-day of basic education components. Upon graduation, students can head to post-secondary schools or immediately enter the workforce.

Programs created by schools in partnership with trucking companies help address the needs of tactile learners and introduces them first-hand to the jobs they will be doing. Far too often parents, teachers, and others within the school system advise graduating students to go to university, without realizing the trades provide lucrative career options at a fraction of the cost. Trade schools are trying to show parents, teachers, and students that there are alternatives to huge university bills with no guarantee that a job will be waiting for them on the other side.

The fact is, more tech training opportunities must be addressed at middle and high school levels. Schools are great at teaching to the eyes and ears of their students, but that is not how everyone works. Many jobs, including that of a diesel technician and other technical trades, require much more hands-on, tactile learning.

There are problems in the system, however. Not all programs succeed. Most of the success has been found when companies step up with their own equipment, training resources, and materials. Penske is one company that has been doing a lot of educational partnering. Industry advocates are wondering why more companies are not stepping up to the plate. After all, these are the very companies that are suffering from the truck driver shortage.

Taking it Upon Themselves

For this reason, many companies have begun taking their efforts in-house. Many motor carriers already have large fleets of technicians, who they tap for mentoring efforts. They also evaluate their compensation, benefits, retention and recruiting efforts to determine the best way to find and keep diesel technicians.

One method includes establishing separate pay scales. One scale can be for tractor trailer technicians and another for those who have the initial tractor trailer skill, but then go through training programs to learn new skills, such as telematics, different drivetrain components, and others. Once they learn the new skill, they receive a raise or bonus related to the new skill.

Different training and skills tiers can come with specific raises and monetary – or otherwise – benefits. This also provides flexibility for managers to reward and incentivize their people. Mechanic programs designed to help new technicians just out of high school learn the skills they need from those who have been working in the shop for a long time.

When technicians hit the ground running with the tools needed to get the job, everyone benefits. Entry-level positions can be stepping stones for higher positions within the shop. In the entry-level roles young people can grab parts for technicians clean the shop floor, run parts and more. While these may sound like menial jobs not fit for even entry-level workers, these workers are gaining valuable experience preparing them for higher positions in the shop once the time comes for them to move up.

Shop managers can monitor the progress of their entry-level technicians and provide recommendations regarding promotions, merit increases, and items of recognition for a job well done. Helper programs like this can take technicians with very little experience and put them on the path to becoming leaders within the shop.

Salary tiers tied to learning new skills can be combined with programs recognizing good attendance, high levels of productivity and great customer service. Shop technicians have the potential to earn large sums of money when they both learn new skills and turn in good performance. This allows employees to challenge themselves and control how and when they make more money and achieve new skills.

If a fleet wants to go even deeper, they can develop a dual evaluation process, which allows both the technician and the manager to evaluate and rate each other on the effectiveness of the relationship. Managers and technicians can compare the goals they set for each other throughout the year.

Programs like these reduce the cost per mile on routes, improve repair and turnaround times, decrease overall turnover and increase young people’s desire to become technicians. When companies grow their own technicians in-house, they find better results, sometimes surpassing what they can achieve when partnering with schools and trade organizations.

Why Retention is Key

One of the critical pieces that far too many fleets overlook or fail to allocate enough resources to is that of retention. It is important that the fleet training manager or department focus on retention from day one. The time most fleet technicians bail is within the first month of training.

New technicians need to be shown where lockers are, get their uniforms fitted and introduce them to the individuals that will shepherd them through the process. The very first day, as well as the thorough nature of the orientation process is critical to keeping the people you need on board. While this may all sound quite simple, your entire program hinges upon this process.

Fledgling technicians need to get up to speed quickly, but also feel like they are getting the resources they need to get the job done and succeed as fleet technicians. Motor carriers need to build upon a new technician’s level of knowledge and provide them with a clear path for growth and financial success.

Many youth of today find the idea of sitting in a windowless cubicle talking to people on the computer and phone all day entirely unappealing. Trucking companies and trade schools must focus on reaching out to young people who would much prefer getting their hands “dirty” working in tactile professions.

When these programs are started early in a motor carrier’s life, they can build upon successes and ensure they have processes in place to find technicians, train them for the problems they will face in the shop, then retain them for the long haul, no pun intended.

When combined, these measures can drive up retention numbers and give a motor carrier a leg up on the competition. Is your fleet making vital investments in retention, training, and compensation to keep your diesel technicians happy?

The Story Behind Rising Trucking Costs

With gasoline and diesel prices on the rise, hitting levels not seen in over three years, people are feeling the pinch. But even more, one industry is feeling the pinch: Trucking.

While a higher price at the pump is something all commuters feel, truckers have big tanks to fill, so they are typically the ones who really feel the hit to their bottom line when gas prices rise. Yet rising gas prices are merely one of the reasons freight prices are on the rise.

That’s why we wanted to take a moment in today’s blog to discuss the different factors that are driving higher trucking industry costs. First up, we will take a closer look at current fuel prices and how they impact the industry that keeps our supply chain primed.

How Higher Fuel Impacts Trucking

Based on today’s prices at the pump, the average trucker can expect $340 worth of diesel to last one day! While fuel prices impact truckers based as much on the number of miles traveled as on anything else, distance plays a huge role in the overall fuel costs truckers must pay.

So, it is important to consider that what could be six or seven dollars extra per tank for most passenger commuters means hundreds of extra dollars for truck drivers and motor carriers. For most truck drivers, every 5-cent rise in the price of fuel equates to $20 per fill-up.

What does this mean? For truck drivers on longer routes, they could spend up to an extra $100 worth of fuel per week. Take a small trucking business with four trucks and you are talking up to an extra $400 per week, or $1,600 per month, which is no small amount of money.

The problem lies in the fact that the trucking companies must increase what they pay their truckers per load for them to not be out the additional fuel cost. Will we see freight costs continue to rise as motor carriers attempt to mitigate the impact of higher fuel prices? It could be that we are already witnessing it.

Higher Freight Costs Mean Higher Prices

Several U.S. companies have come out stating that higher freight costs are eating into their profits, which will either force them to absorb the cost or raise consumer prices. From Hasbro to Kellogg and Coke, shipping expenses are posing a problem for some of America’s largest companies. The primary factor driving higher trucking costs continues to be the tight labor market.

There is no denying that the trucking industry is a critical component of the nation’s supply chain. If Hasbro wants to get toys to retail distribution centers or Coke wants to get sodas just about anywhere, 70% of that action happens on a truck.

Yet, the problem remains. Companies paid 6% more this year than they did a year ago to ship their products, which is the fastest growth we have seen in nearly seven years. Executives from many companies, whether it be food services company Sysco or Tyson Foods, are reporting higher shipping expenses to Wall Street. Tyson Foods recently reported a $250 million rise in shipping expenses through the first half of 2018.

Companies are coming out stating openly that product prices must reflect the true costs of doing business. In other words, businesses cannot subsidize the cost of increased freight. What does this mean? Expect costs to be passed on to consumers.

In fact, 148 companies listed on the S&P 500 have openly mentioned freight, shipping, and/or trucking costs during earnings calls from the first quarter. This represents double the number that reported freight costs as an issue last year.

Boom and Bust in Trucking

It’s no great secret that trucking, along with many other industries, remains a boom and bust industry. The fate of our nation’s economy is tied closely with the fate of our nation’s motor carriers. Thousands of truck drivers lost their jobs during the Great Recession ten years ago. Yet, the industry has bounced back. Gas was cheap and trucking companies were on a hiring spree.

Now, with gas prices and employment shortages mounting, the costs for long-haul, 18-wheel trucking operators has hit a wall. Consider for a moment that there are only 500,000 truck drivers across the country. With overall unemployment at its lowest level in many years, companies must either employ their own private fleets or contract out to qualified truckers. All of this is cast within the light of a shrinking talent pool.

Whether it be the result of the lack of talent calling into recruiting offices or the strict federal regulations that have had a big impact on hours on the road, trucking operators are feeling the squeeze. Without a huge influx of new truck drivers, the industry is looking at a shortage of up to 63,000 truck drivers by the end of the year.

Retail Sales Add to the Numbers

While trucking companies are increasing the pay and benefits they offer new truck drivers, this means those costs will wind up down the proverbial consumer price food chain. Might Congress lowering the interstate truck driving age to 18, from 21, make any difference? Some say perhaps, others say perhaps not.

We are at a point where manufacturers must make more things to meet rising consumer demand, but in order to get these things from Point A to Point B, truckers have to be involved. Will the increase in demand result in a bottleneck at the dock? Only time will tell.

US Retail sales data came in for April and the numbers are telling. Many trucking companies experienced a better than average first quarter and remain optimistic about the rest of 2018. Retail sales are up 4.7% from one year ago.

When sales are low and freight volumes suffer, trucking companies abandon capital expenditures and fleet improvements fall by the wayside. With the financials now firmly on motor carriers’ sides, expect to see fleets continuing to reinvest in equipment.

In Other Trucking News

The trucking industry news cycle certainly has not been short of interesting tidbits. International Truck has announced the formation of an industry forum where commercial trucking interests can discuss emerging topics and help push forward industry change.

In other news, UPS is hoping that automation and price increases drive up their profit margin and lower costs. The question now is what do these revelations mean for consumers and businesses who utilize UPS to get items from Point A to Point B.

On the other side of the shipping giant spectrum, FedEx has announced that it has instituted testing blockchain technology for tracking high value cargo. In their statement announcing the move, FedEx has referred to blockchain as the “next frontier” in worldwide supply chain security.

The fact is, most indicators point to an improving economy and cautious optimism within the trucking industry. The United States is now entering its 9th consecutive year of economic growth. Since discounts are not a part of the financial game right now, companies need to do everything they can to maximize the value of their purchases.

Key economic indicators all point to a positive, or at the least, neutral trucking environment. Yet this does not mean there are no headwinds on the horizon. Business inventories have ticked up recently, which could be related to the need to keep products closer in case a customer makes an online purchase. Companies are moving slower lately when it comes to inventory concerns.

Many factors, from trade tensions to rising oil and fuel prices, are weighing heavily on motor carriers’ minds. But with continued growth expected in the near term, fleets have their fingers crossed. One example is in the flatbed sector, where loadings are up by 9% year-over-year. While growth in van and reefer operations are not as high, they will remain solid throughout the year.

Still, the question on most minds remains: How much has the ELD mandate impacted overall capacity? The most telling indicator remains the spot market. While some are quick to blame the ELD mandate for tightening capacity, data points show that fleets were phasing in the use of ELDs and tightening capacity well ahead of the mandate’s start date.

When you look at all the factors, one wonders why other intermodal modes of transportation aren’t seeing huge spikes. It could very well be that fleets are taking full advantage of a pipeline of new vehicles and are offering incentives that are bringing new truck drivers into the door. There doesn’t appear to be a catastrophe in the making where trucking is concerned. With the economy continuously improving, trucking numbers continue to show strength and resilience over the long-term.

Yet, history shows us that the economy does not climb in perpetuity. Periods of contraction will occur. As a result, trucking companies should be investing heavily in their operations and doing everything they can to decrease inefficiencies. When hard times do arrive, will your company be able to weather the storm?

Why Distracted Commercial Truck Driving Remains An Important Issue

We live in a digital age. Information is available anywhere, anytime, and nearly all around us. For anyone with a smartphone, which is most of us, the appeal of being able to access information with ubiquity carries great appeal. In most industries, especially ones where people sit at a desk, device distraction is a simple productivity problem. For truck drivers, it can be a matter of life or death.

It is a reality that in the 21st Century, you will see people driving their vehicles while staring at, or even manipulating, their phone. In too many cases, they may even swerve erratically. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2016 nearly 3,500 road deaths were attributed to distracted driving.

Even more troubling, according to a Travelers’ Insurance company Risk Index report, nearly a quarter of Americans say they use personal technology while operating a motor vehicle. Startingly, nearly half of U.S. workers admitted to engaging in work-related activities while driving, which includes emails and texts as well as calls.

All of this is despite the fact that such behavior is illegal in most states. Of course, this holds true for interstate truckers no matter what state they are in. Yet it isn’t difficult for someone who has become complacent in their stellar safety record to be lulled into responding to that text just this one time.

Obviously, distracted driving is not a new phenomenon. Motor vehicle operators were getting distracted long before the smartphone. Whether it be grabbing a quick bite to eat, messing around with the radio, or putting on makeup – distracted driving has been around for a long, long time. The problem now is that the age of the smartphone has made distracted driving an even more acute problem.

How Technology Solves Its Own Problem

Fortunately, OEMs and vehicle manufacturers are trying to make it easier for truck drivers to control the various functions within the vehicles. Now, phones can be connected into the vehicle’s system. Difficult or unintuitive controls have been reworked or done away with altogether.

Even the source of the distraction – mobile devices themselves – have become a part of the safety solution, with advanced navigation devices, fuel-economy coaching modules, workflow and fleet management systems, and in-cab fleet tracking and communications systems.

While some say the ELD devices are themselves a potential source of distraction, the division of Travelers that completed the risk assessment determined that ELDs have not been a large source of distraction for truck drivers. ELDs do require attention, but generally only when the vehicle is not in motion. When you shift into gear, the ELD considers it on-duty status, so any more interaction is not required until the ELD changes status.

Companies are also coming out with in-cab devices designed to specifically monitor for distracted driving. One company has released a camera-based truck driver status monitor. The monitor checks for distractions, drowsiness, and posture to avoid potential crashes.

The truck drivers condition is monitored by the device and recorded on an SD card. A voiced alert will sound if the device determines the operator is drifting or at risk of a crash. Later, the truck driver and fleet manager can review the driving status, alerts, and view an image of the truck driver when an alert was triggered. These make for great coaching and feedback sessions, especially if it is an ongoing problem.

Finally, the device can relay the truck driver’s condition in real time. This way the fleet manager can warn the truck driver or act right away if there is a potential emergency. As more technology OEMS come out with these products, will we see a big drop in distracted driving-related accidents?

Perhaps, but also perhaps not. Cabs are still increasingly filled with screens, tablets, and other devices necessary to ensure truck drivers are dispatched and routed correctly. And for anyone working in the transportation sector, distractions can be both a costly and deadly problem. And even when it isn’t deadly, it can be very expensive. On-the-job vehicle accidents cost companies more than double the cost of any other type of on-the-job accident. Trucks are assets, after all, and when they aren’t running, they aren’t bringing in revenue for the business.

Addressing it Companywide

One of the best ways to ensure your operators are not driving distracted is to create a comprehensive policy to address distracted driving. Once the policy has been created, it must be properly communicated to employees. Compliance with the policy is essential for it to work. By promoting and enforcing the policy, your fleet can promote safe driving practices.

Fleets must implement a safety strategy that includes distracted driving awareness. Distracted driving training should include a focus on defensive truck driving strategies. Many of these are common sense maneuvers that were standard safety practice long before the age of the smartphone and include everything from driving at safe speeds and being cognizant of following distances for both yourself and the vehicles on the road around you.

Some motor carriers even have a distracted driving day or week of the month where the focus is put on distracted driving. This way it is at front and center of truck drivers’ minds. But beyond truck drivers, senior and mid-level management must be on board as well. The policy must be set and in place and properly communicated companywide. Penalties must also be clearly laid out and understandable.

Successful motor carriers will have created a program but also set expectations. They will have an enforcement guideline already written out and ready to go before the program is even launched. Only by putting a focus on it will fleets realize the safety potential.

State Efforts are Lagging

Unfortunately, it doesn’t help when the states are having problems coming up with their own ways to address distracted driving. Would you believe that 20 states do not have a texting-while-driving ban? Many of them also do not have cell phone bans for teens or new drivers.

The National Safety Council (NSC) is lobbying to have local lawmakers enact comprehensive laws to prevent distracted driving. The NSC believes that too many states have not put safe driving measures at the top of their legislative agenda.

States with the highest number of distracted driving deaths were Texas, California, and Florida. Florida is the only of those three states having not passed any laws governing cell phone use while driving. State rankings for these statistics were created based on official figures provided by the National Highway Traffic Administration and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Another concern is that deaths caused by cell phone use are under reported. In order for a death to be classified because of cell phone use, the cell use must be witnessed by a police officer. It certainly is a sobering report.

Distracted with Daydreaming

While smartphones and devices with screens increasingly grab the lion’s share of our distracted truck driving attention, they are no the only distraction problem truck drivers deal with out there on our nation’s roads. Daydreaming is also a big problem.

In fact, some research has shown that daydreaming, otherwise known as being “lost in thought,” can be just as deadly as cell phone or screen distractions. If you consider the definition of distraction, is any activity that takes your eyes off the road, hands off the wheel, or mind off of the task of safely operating the vehicle. Consider that third one for a moment.

In a ten-year dataset gathered from crash records across the United States showed that being “generally distracted” or “lost in thought” accounted for being the top distraction, with a whopping 62% reporting they were daydreaming when they got into a vehicular accident.

The others included:

  • Cell phone use, whether it be talking, listening, dialing, texting, or surfing the internet;
  • Focusing on an outside person, object, or event;
  • Focusing on other people in the vehicle;
  • Using or reaching for something brought into the vehicle;
  • Eating or drinking;
  • Adjusting audio, climate controls, or other internal vehicle switches, buttons, or knobs.
  • Moving an object within the vehicle;
  • Smoking-related.

While the study looked at distraction among passenger car drivers, these distractions can also be applicable to professional truck drivers. It is important that truck drivers understand how problematic distracted driving can be.

Fortunately, the FMCSA has come out with a Mobile Phone Restrictions Fact Sheet. To get more information on the rules and restrictions associated with mobile phone use and distractions on the road, simply follow this link.

The bottom line is that distracted driving has been a problem for a long time. Whether the distraction is technological in nature or originates in our mind, owner-operators and motor carriers must do everything they can to ensure attention is paid to the road when operators are on the road. Will we see a measurable drop in distracted driving accidents as technology and awareness play a larger role? Only time will tell.

Why The Word ‘Spec’ Is So Important In The Trucking Industry

Spec. It’s a short-form word that many in the trucking industry are quite familiar with. While, by definition, it stands for specification, for purchasing managers and owner-operators, it stands for everything from profitability to business growth. Why? Because if you aren’t using the right equipment your entire business model could be at risk.

While you may be looking at vocational trucks, most large commercial motor vehicle purchases are those of traditional tractor trailers, so we will focus on those in today’s article. The fact is, on average, it costs a dollar per minute to keep a big rig in the shop. To avoid finding yourself on the high end of that average, it is critical you spec the right equipment before the rubber hits the road.

Smart operators manage to lower overall cost of equipment acquisition by doing the research required to ensure they purchase equipment with specifications that match their business needs. There is little benefit for a motor carrier or owner-operator to spec a Class 8 heavy-duty commercial motor vehicle if all they need to do is complete small package runs.

Still, this does not mean that a fleet should rely on spec’ing alone and ignore vehicle maintenance for years at a time. You want to successfully keep a truck running for at least 500,000 miles without any significant maintenance or parts replacement costs. Spec’ing the right truck (and trailer, which we will get into later) is important, but ongoing maintenance, whether preventative or not, is critical to maintaining a healthy fleet.

This shouldn’t be hard considering preventative maintenance intervals have lengthened from 10,000 to 15,000 miles to anywhere from 40,000 to 50,000 miles, depending on the application and engine specification. At the extreme ends, some engine models can extend out to 70,000 miles between oil change intervals. Preventative maintenance should never be extended to that length, but oil change intervals provide a little more leeway.

Spec’ing for the Long Term

When you are making critical equipment purchase decisions, you must be thinking not only about the type of work your equipment will be facing, but also what the long-term view is. It is important to look at equipment ownership and maintenance concerns from both the short and long view; both the small and big pictures.

Short-term considerations include regularly inspecting fluid levels, checking for progressive wear on specific pieces of equipment, and ensuring DOT stickers are readily visible. Long-term business considerations involve things like spec’ing equipment, preparing for regulatory change, and figuring out life-cycle costs.

Consider disc brakes as an example. While disc breaks may sound like a short-term consideration, they actually represent the long-view. Although the full life-cycle costs of discs compared to drum brakes is about the same, the reasons why are different. While drum brakes might cost less at the outset, they generally require more maintenance over the long-term.

Disc brakes are far more reliable and work using fewer parts, yet they also require regular inspections. Avoiding pad changes on air disc brakes right around mid-life is not a good idea. If you wait too long, you may irreparably damage your rotors, which could be up to a $3,000 mistake.

The Best Spec Guidance

The best guidance is to spec to your commercial motor vehicle’s most expensive time frame, which are generally years three or four. If you purchase equipment based on when it will cost you the most and then plan for that, you will be in a far better position to save your bottom line while also encouraging good purchasing decisions.

Another example of spec wisdom lies in alternators. While purchasing a high-efficiency, high-output alternator, you might find the upcharge a bit hard to swallow. Yet, it is critically important that you understand, the up-front cost increases are vastly eclipsed by your long-term savings in fuel savings, efficiency, fewer battery problems, less no-starts and so much more.

Depending on the application, a high-efficiency alternator can save a truck driver or fleet up to $100 a year on fuel costs alone. If the alternator is keeping the battery charged for longer, then you may not need to replace them as soon as usual. When you factor in all these intangibles, the more expensive alternator suddenly seems like a pretty good decision.

If you are engaging in vertical integration of your spec’ing choices, then you will be better prepared to absorb premium item costs by reducing costs elsewhere. Where technology giveth’, technology can also taketh’ away. Just remember that even though you must pay a premium for some of the advanced items and technology you need to set you up for the future, upgrades to existing equipment is rarely money wasted.

Looking at the Parts Problem

Motor carriers – and business in general – like to stick to what they know. For this reason, they can sometimes overlook part changes or efficiency upgrades. Fleets should always put their faith in the hands of the OEM(s) where spec’ing certain parts is concerned. If you are making these changes for your business, then make sure you are doing it based on real data and experience.

It never hurts to inquire with your partners regarding their experience is in handling a specific build or parts-related problem. Even more, managers want to ensure they are paying close attention to the availability of parts. If you have a tractor spec’ed out with all the bells and whistles, make sure you have a backstock of parts in the wings so that when something breaks, you’ve minimized downtime by being prepared.

A good rule of thumb is to swap the general theory that standard parts should be well-stocked and rarer parts not. If your application demands it, you may be spending far more time on replacing rarer parts. Keeping tier inventory levels at equilibrium is a great option. Why? Because heavy-duty commercial motor vehicles are built pretty well these days.

Decades ago the industry worried (rightfully so) about things like drivelines, transmissions and axles, but the build quality has improved dramatically with new manufacturing and fabrication techniques coming online. Today, shop managers are more concerned with aftertreatment systems than they are with engines. Telematics, electronics, and sensor technology all require extra attention.

Bye-Bye General-Purpose Truck

Another dying holdover from a decade ago is the “general-purpose” truck. Today, because of the varied nature of freight transport, truck specs must be duty-cycle dependent. You would be doing your business a disservice by running an OTR vehicle in a P&D operation.

This makes getting the specs right from the very beginning absolutely critical. The last thing you want to do is be faced with having to fix something after the fact because it was not initially spec’d properly.

The most important thing is to consider the cost/benefit analysis of spec’ing premium components if it means long-life and a largely maintenance free existence. And finally, consider the application when deciding on a vehicle. How you run the truck plays a large part in its future maintenance and upkeep profile.

What About the Trailer?

While the truck is important, without the trailer to haul the goods in, there would be no reason for the tractor to exist. Yet, trailers wear out just the same as the trucks that pull them. General trailer wear-out generally lands somewhere between 10 and 15 years. Those operating in the truckload sector generally see the shortest trade cycles, while grocery companies tend to keep trailers for 12 years or more.

Motor carriers operating in the food service space generally keep their trailers for longer periods of time because they are built to last in low-mileage, high-cycle situations. In the truckload sector, however, trailers tend to run less miles, quite simply because of the higher tractor-to-trailer ratio.

Some of the most common problems with trailers are electrical, which is why spec’ing a high-quality wiring harness is so important. If the trailer experiences any jarring or sudden movement, cheap electrical setups frustrate truck drivers, especially when failures occur on the road.

The biggest killer for electrical components in trailers – outside of poor harness jobs – is moisture. No matter what you are spec’ing, whether on tractor or trailer, it is vitally important you take great care to ensure seals, gaskets, rivets, and more, are all firmly in place, dry, and ready to repel water.

It’s All About Maintenance

In the end, it won’t matter what you spec if you don’t have a comprehensive preventative maintenance program in place to ensure your equipment stays in good shape over the long haul. If you are running a spotty maintenance program, or are not enforcing preventative maintenance measures, all your spec dreams could go right out the window.

Why invest in tire inflation systems or air disc brakes if you are not committing the manpower and resources required to ensure they stay properly maintained? While equipment like this might get you through longer periods without routine maintenance, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for it altogether.

Invest in your shop, keep your fleet technicians happy, and pay close attention to properly spec’ing at initial purchase, and you will be sure to enjoy a long, fruitful life with your essential equipment.