Sunday, October 5, 2008
I've realized that I may use some terms and slang that my audience may not be familiar with, so I thought I'd make this week's blog into an introduction to the culture and language of trucking, and maybe give ya'll an insight into what all we have to do out here. It's not all just driving and sightseeing, not by a long shot.

Let's start with a day in the life of a trucker. Let's make this a very bad day, so I can work in some of the things that can, and have, gone wrong out here on the road.

Our guy is a solo driver, he works for Imaginary Refrigerated Trucking, Inc.

3AM, Arrive at drop yard in LA, so far so good, traffic was light, but now his eleven hours of driving is up, so he's got to get some rest time. He takes 15 minutes to unhook the loaded trailer he's dropping, then fills out his log before he hits the sack. A log, or logbook, or "swindle sheet" is a document that we are required by law to fill out and keep current.
We have to record what we are doing for every hour of the day on the grid by drawing a line to indicate whether we are 'On Duty, Not Driving', 'Driving', in the 'Sleeper Berth', or 'Off Duty'. The rules that govern this are called the Hours of Service rules, and they state that we can only work for 14 hours, then we must take a ten hour break before we can drive again. Within that 14 hours, only eleven hours can be driving, then you have to take that ten hour break before you can drive again. Then, you can't work more than 70 hours in any eight day period, once you hit the 70 hour mark you have to stop and sit until after midnight and hope you get some hours back, or you can go off duty for 34 hours and get all 70 back. Confused? You aren't the only one. Keeping that logbook legal can take a while to learn. But it's all in the interest of keeping sleepy drivers off the road.
So, our sleepy trucker gets his paperwork filled out and settles in for a 10 hour break. He shows arriving at the drop yard at 3am, then 15 minutes on duty to drop his trailer, so he's now got to go into the sleeper berth, or go off duty until 1:15 PM. (assuming he's running it legal and not keeping two sets of logs.)

1:15 PM - Our driver gets up and checks his Qualcomm. The Qualcomm (which is actually a brand name for the main company that provides them, but it has become the common name for them as well) is a keyboard with a little screen at the top that lets the driver and his dispatcher communicate. He's got a new load assignment. He has to pick up a load of produce with four picks. That means he's gonna have to go to four different warehouses to get his full load. He's gonna need a clean, working reefer trailer (a trailer with a refrigeration unit), and that means he's got to walk around the yard looking at all the trailers to find one that's empty, clean, and functional. He's also gonna need a set of load locks, cause the one's he had are bracing the load in the trailer he dropped earlier. He can't get them out because the load is sealed. (Load locks are long bars with rubber bumpers on each end that extend with a ratchet mechanism so you can stretch them tight from one wall of the trailer to the other and lock them in place to keep the load from shifting.)

The first trailer he checks has a flat tire, so he moves on the the next (if he's a responsible driver he'll make note of the trailer number and pass it along to his companies maintenance section so it can be fixed.) The next trailer stinks to high heaven when he opens the doors because the driver who dropped it had a load of meat and didn't get it washed out afterward. It even has dead rats in it, and the chute is torn. The cute is a long piece of canvas that runs along the roof of the trailer to funnel the cold air from the reefer unit at the nose to the back of the trailer. If it's torn, the cold air won't circulate properly, and the load will get too hot at the tail end of the trailer. That one's no good. The next trailer looks promising, it's clean, no flats, chute's ok, the tank is even full of fuel, so he turns on the reefer unit so it can start to pre-cool while he goes to get his tractor. He starts up the automatic pre-trip check and walks away. By the time he's got his tractor over and is ready to hook up the pre-trip is done and the unit shows four or five alarm codes, and has shut down. By now, he's cursing. Alarm codes mean there is something mechanically wrong with the unit. The only other empty on the yard has had it's fuel tank run dry, and he's been through that nightmare before. Once a reefer looses it's prime it can take hours of pumping on the little primer pump to get it started again. He goes back to the one with the flat tire, pre-trips the reefer and it comes up functional. It's the best he's gonna get. He calls breakdown (that's the department in his company responsible for keeping the equipment up and running) and, after sitting on hold for half an hour, he tells them he's gonna need a tire change. He also tells them about the problems on all the other trailers, just so some other poor driver doesn't get stuck with them.

2:30 PM - He's hooked up to the gimpy trailer and has pulled it to the repair shop ten miles down the road. (luckily, with four tires per axle, and two axles, that means he's still got three good tires on that side, and it will still roll.) He has to wait for another hour and a half for his tire to be replaced and it's getting closer and closer to his pickup time, (not to mention his 14 hour HOS clock is ticking because he had to log 15 minutes of driving time, and more on duty time while dealing with the repair shop - cause as long as he's imaginary, we may as well imagine him doing things legally.) So now it's getting close to rush hour, and he's still in LA with 140 miles to drive to get to his first pick-up. And he still needs load locks.

5:15 PM - he finally makes it out of LA traffic, which was bumper to bumper and moving at a crawl thanks to an accident on the I-5, and his dispatcher wants to know why he's running so late. He's only got 10 hours left on his 14 hour clock, and he's still got four docks to bump. He stops at a Pilot Truck Stop, pulls across the fuel island and out the other side and shuts his truck off so he can run in and buy a couple of load locks. He's out of his truck for a grand total of five minutes and the trucker behind him is already complaining about him parking on the fuel island, even as they are both standing in line to pay for their purchases.

7:45PM - he finally makes it to his first stop, only 45 minutes late. The other pickups have been rescheduled for in the morning because, even though he was late, and the shipper complained, it didn't matter anyway because they were still waiting for some of the produce, strawberries, to come in from the field. Our poor driver just can't win. They tell him which dock to back into and tell him they will wake him when they are ready to start loading him. His company policy says he's got to be on the dock to make sure the right amount of freight is loaded, and he has to pulp the produce. Pulping means he has to have a pulp thermometer and he has to measure the temperature of the produce. If it's loaded too warm then his trailer won't cool to the right temperature and it could cause the whole load to be ruined. He backs his trailer into the tight space, opens the doors, and bumps the dock. Screw logging it legal, it took him thirty minutes to get backed in to the ridiculously tight space, but he only logs it as 15 minutes. He turns off his truck and rolls down the windows (it's illegal to idle for more than five minutes in Cali, no matter how hot it gets inside the cab) and climbs into the sleeper. He only just woke up six and a half hours ago, so he's not really tired enough to sleep, even though his log will show him resting. He settles in with a movie on his laptop and a bag of beef jerky for dinner and waits for the lumpers (that's the guys who load and unload trailers) to knock on his door. He finally falls asleep sometime around 11PM.

2:30AM *Bam, Bam, Bam!* A knock on the driver side door jolts him from a sound sleep. They are ready to load him, and he has to be on the dock. He's only been in the sleeper for six hours, not enough time to re-set his 14 hour clock. If he logs this as on duty, he won't be able to drive to his next pick up, so he's gonna have to fudge his books a little. He may not like it, and it's illegal to do, but sometimes there's no getting around a little creative logging if you are gonna get the job done. He crawls out of the sleeper, pulls on his shoes, and goes inside to the dock. He watches as they load him, pulps one pallet (34°, perfect), and signs the bills. He puts his load locks in place to keep the load from shifting. All this for four pallets of strawberries. He pulls out of the dock, shuts his doors and pulls off to one side of the lot until he's legal to drive again, at 6:15 in the morning. His logbook will show that he was in the sleeper the whole time so he has the hours to drive, even though he was supposed to log the time on the dock as on duty.

6:15 AM - He's ready to throw the Screaming Meanie (a very LOUD alarm clock sold in truck stops, it's very annoying, but it does the job) through the windshield when it goes off. He's only had about four hours of sleep, and there's no coffee to be had. But he gets up, does a pre-trip inspection on his rig, and heads off to his next stop, 20 miles up the coast. This one goes much more smoothly, except that the guys on the dock barely speak any English, and he barely knows any Spanish so it's a comedy of misunderstandings as he tries to get his five pallets of grapefruit. Thank goodness the USDA inspector came in and helped to translate. He's in and out in about an hour, and off to pick number three.

8:30 AM - another ten miles, and another dock bumped. His reefer is set to 34°, but at this stop he's picking up 9 pallets of peaches, and the lady on the dock tells him he's got to set his reefer to 38°. "Don't you freeze my peaches," she keeps telling him, and she seems to be deaf as he tries to explain that if he doesn't keep it at 34° the strawberries will go bad before he can deliver them. She won't listen. He calls his dispatcher to find out how the company wants him to handle this. The dispatcher tells him to go ahead and set the reefer at 38° until after he's loaded, then set it back down to 34° once he's away from the shipper. He does as he's told, but he asks the dispatcher to send him those instruction over the qualcomm just so it's in writing and he won't get in trouble if something goes wrong. The peaches are loaded, and he's got a little time before his last appointment, so he pulls into a little Mom-N-Pop truckstop/restaurant for breakfast. He'd like to order something off the menu, but he doesn't have time, so he pays for the overpriced buffet and makes due with greasy eggs and sausage that's been under a heatlamp too long. He promises himself he'll eat something healthy for lunch.

11:00AM - Last stop. He's supposed to pick up five pallets of Bell peppers, but he's only got room on the trailer for four pallets, any more, even though they will fit, would make him overweight on the trailer because of the California bridge law (ok, a semi can't gross over 80,000lbs without special permits, but we also can't be over 12,000 lbs on our drive tires, or 34,000lbs on our drives or our trailer axles. Those weights can be adjusted by sliding the trailer axle forward or backward to balance out the load, but in Cali, and some other states, the trailer axle can't be more than 40' back from the kingpin of the trailer. That's the bridge law, and it can make getting a 53' trailer loaded legally into a headache.). He makes a mental note to choke the load planner when he gets back to his company's yard. Then he goes into the shipping office to do battle with the shipper over why their load has to be shorted. The shipper asks him to go over their scales so they can see if they can load that last pallet. Sure enough, with his axles set to California legal, his trailer axle (called his 'tandems' in trucker lingo) has 33,950lbs on them. But his gross weight is only 78,000lbs, so the shipper tries to argue that that last pallet can go on anyway, cause it won't put him over 80,000lbs. After twenty minutes of arguing the shipper, after calling the customer, says that that last pallet has to be loaded, and they can get it on there if they rearrange the trailer. They pull everything off, and re-load with the grapefruit at the nose of the trailer because it's the heaviest, then the peaches, then the strawberries, and finally the Bell Peppers, this moves most of the weight forward, and frees up just enough weight on the tandems to squeeze that last pallet on. Our poor hero has now been sitting in that dock for five hours. Now his gross weight is 79,000lbs, but his axle weights are legal, and the shipper is happy. He pulls out and heads for I-5 and his first fuel stop at the Pilot. By the time he gets to the Pilot, he's smacking himself upside the head for being stupid. He should have fueled before he got loaded, because now, if he fills up his tanks, he will be overweight. 200 gallons of diesel, at 8lbs per gallon, weighs 1,600lbs. He's got less than a quarter tank and he's already at 79,000lbs, not to mention, the reefer tank is only half full, which means he'll need another 25 gallons in it. That's gonna be 200lbs more. He's gonna be running through the desert in high summer, so he can't skimp on the reefer fuel. After some furious calculating he realizes that he can only fill his tanks halfway and still be legal. That means he'll have to stop and fuel every 500 miles, instead of the usual 1,000 miles between fillups. Maybe he'll get lucky and dispatch will let him swap this load off to some unsuspecting team.
After all the time he spent sitting at that last shipper, he's now only got two more hours that he can drive before his 14 hour clock runs out. He's starting to hate this job. He only gets paid for the miles he rolls. All the time he spent sitting in the dock waiting was unpaid time. He could stop here at the truckstop with all it's amenities, but he needs to get some miles under him so the day isn't a complete waste. He heads north on I-5, through Sacramento, then heads east on I-80. He knows it's going to take extra time to climb the hill to Donner Pass, so he wants to make up some time while he's on flat land. He fires up his CB and calls for a bear report. Bear, or Smokey Bear, is trucker slang for a State Trooper, or any police really. County Sheriffs are called County Mounties, local police are Local Yokels or City Kitties, and motorcycle cops are Evil Knievels. He gets a list of speed traps from the drivers headed in the other direction, "Hey, Eastbound, you got a Bear in the woods just past the 63 yardstick, and there's another one taking pictures at the 81. He's got a couple of buddies collecting autographs, too."

Another driver comes back with, "Got Bubblegum Machine rolling eastbound, guess someone won the jackpot."

"Thanks man. You're clear back to Sacramento. There was a City Kitty with a captive four wheeler on the southbound five," he replies. Now he knows that there is a speed trap at mile marker 63, and there is another one with an officer using a radar gun and two more giving tickets at mile marker 81. There's also a cop chasing someone east with his lights going.

Because he's so heavy, he climbs Donner Pass at a crawl, 10 MPH with the hammer down. Traffic whizzes past him. His time runs out while he's still climbing the hill, but there's nowhere to stop until he gets to the top. He'll have to fudge his logs again.

8:45 PM - Parked at the rest area at the top of the mountain, his stomach rumbling because he forgot to grab some extra food while he was at the truck stop, he compresses his miles a little and shows on his logs that he arrived at the the rest area about 30 minutes before he actually got there. All the regular parking spaces were full, so he had to park on the shoulder of the rest area's exit ramp, but he's out of hours so he will have to make do. As his stomach growls again, he remembers how Donner Pass got it's name. He crawls into the sleeper, exhausted, for his ten hour break, which will be up at 6:15 in the morning.

5:45AM - *Bam, Bam, Bam* Someone is knocking on his door. He opens the bunk curtains to peer out, bleary eyed, and groans as he sees the unmistakable Smokey Bear hat of a State Trooper. "Can you step out of the vehicle, please, sir." Looks like this day isn't going to be any better than yesterday. But he gets lucky. The officer just takes a look at his CDL, his medical card, and a quick glance at his logs and bills. "You can't be parking on the exit ramps. I'm gonna let you go this time, because I see you were out of hours, but don't let me catch you doing it again. I'm sure you don't want the $300 fine. Drive safely." Whew, that was a close one. He heads for the bathroom real quick to run a toothbrush over his teeth and stuff. As soon as the clock hits 6:15 he starts rolling.

Only a few miles down the road he pulls into the Agriculture Inspection Station. The officer asks him for his bills and he hands them over. The officer looks at them and says, "Please pull off to the side and open your doors, sir." Oh, crap, now what?

He pulls over, but he doesn't open the doors. He waits for the officer and the Agricultural Inspector to come over to him, "I can't break the seal, officer, you'll have to break it and sign the bills that you did so." But there was no problem, that was pretty routine. The real problem was what the Ag Inspector wanted.

"You don't have a USDA certificate for the grapefruit you are hauling. I'll need to inspect them."

That means the driver has to crawl carefully over all the pallets in front of the grapefruit in the 34° trailer, all the way to the nose of the trailer, to pull out one or two grapefruit for the inspector to look at. Fun, fun. He has to move cases of bell pepper slightly so he can fit without tearing the chute and worm his way back to the grapefruit. He grabs two and scoots his way back out. He pauses to snag a couple of strawberries on the way, since he still hasn't had any breakfast.

A quick slice to cut the fruit in half, and the inspector is satisfied. He tosses the first one in the trash, but, when the driver's stomach rumbles loud enough to turn heads, the inspector has mercy and gives the second one back, already sliced in half and ready to eat. Munching on his grapefruit half, which isn't so good without sugar, but he ain't complaining at this point, the driver heads on his way, down the hill and into Nevada. Now that he's rolling on the open road, he remembers why he loves this job.


********************

Lucky for us, we haven't had all these things go wrong on one single load, but all of them have happened to us at one time or another. As a team, we don't have to worry so much about our hours because one of us can drive while the other gets a ten hour break in the sleeper, but things are a lot tougher for a solo driver.

I really wish that the people who make the laws, who design the rest stops with so few truck spaces, who load the trucks, and who decide that they don't want "dirty truck stops" in their towns would take the time to walk (or drive) the proverbial mile in a trucker's shoes. This isn't an easy job, or an easy way of life. I hope I've given ya'll some insight into what it's like to be a trucker. When you are a trucker, you aren't a trucker from 9 to 5, you are on the road for weeks, or even months at a time. You work around the clock. There's a lot more to it, it's a whole 'nother way of life, and it's a great big country out here.

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I'm a 34 year old wife, truck driver, writer, and photographer with a love of adventure and travel. I am a Libertarian, and a total sci-fi geek. I studied archaeology at Auburn University.

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