Information revolution

| December 15, 2005

Stranded truckers lined up on the side of the road after Hurricane Wilma hit South Florida.

When Hurricane Wilma sucker-punched Florida in late October, she left South Florida powerless and brought traffic on the information superhighway to a standstill. And that left drivers virtually in the dark.

With everything shut down, including the electric pumps that fill diesel tanks, already expensive fuel got scarce, too.

A decade ago this might have meant drivers walking to stand in line to use a public phone, but even in a blacked-out south Florida, modern communications devices played a key role in keeping truckers in the know.

Along with eight other trucks, owner-operator Mike Callaway of Right Choice Trucking in Atlanta, Ga., was shut down on the shoulder of an entrance ramp in West Palm Beach. “My fuel tanks are half-full, but I’m not taking any chances,” Callaway says. “I won’t make a move until I know the shipper is open, the freight is ready to go, and they can get it on the truck.”

Normally this is no problem. Callaway calls his broker or the customer and gets the information he needs. But Wilma’s most devastating blow was to regional communication; cell and dial-up phones, the Internet and Qualcomm were all unreliable at best and mostly not working at all.

When asked how he was getting information, Callaway pointed to his CB radio. “This is the only way I can talk to anybody, and other drivers are just as lost as I am,” he says.

Callaway says he and some of the other drivers on the shoulder had not eaten a full meal in three days.

Without information, today’s trucking industry is paralyzed. Finely balanced inventory management requires precise shipping and receiving schedules. Fuel costs too much and can’t be wasted searching for customer addresses or places to sleep. Traffic gridlocks from rush hour construction and accidents are daily obstacles that waste fuel and confound logistics planning.

Drivers want to know what to do with freight overages, how to get an updated document for the permit book, and why am I sitting here 500 miles from nowhere for two days now without a load? Perhaps most of all, drivers want information from their families and employers: how are the wife and kids?

All this information is easier for truckers to get than ever. Numerous trucking industry and transportation safety groups have websites and numbers for fax and phone. Cell phones provide instant contact with family, employer and customer, and wireless Internet access makes web surfing and e-mail possible anywhere there’s a cell phone signal or Wi-Fi coverage. Sirius and XM radio carry channels for truckers featuring weather and traffic nationwide. Most company trucks have Qualcomm; truckstops have newspapers, magazines, and weather reports; and if all else fails, there’s always the CB radio.

“To me, we need every piece of information we can get,” says owner-operator Blake Humbles of Newport News, Va. “We need to know what to expect along the way and when we get where we’re going,” he says. “We need to know if there’s a safe place to stay. We need to know the best routes. We need to make informed decisions, and to do that we need total information.”

With 29 years of trucking experience, Humbles remembers driving before cell phones, Qualcomm and satellite communication.

“I was hauling explosives for a company called C.I. Whitten,” he says. “We had to call and check in with the dispatcher all the time.” The only way to do this was to stop and find a pay phone. “I can remember standing in line for two or three hours to use the phone.”

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