Safely backing your truck requires patience and practice
By Max Kvidera
Backing a big rig into a loading dock or parking space can be a humbling experience. If you don’t get it right, you run the risk of shearing off your own or another truck’s mirror or scraping your trailer. If done haphazardly, you could raise the ire of other truckers by not allowing enough space for them.
Backing up to a warehouse door, often between other trailers, or across a street, avoiding traffic or with limited space to turn, requires experience, patience, smart use of your mirrors and caution. If you make a mistake, it will cost you or your carrier — or both.
Gina Stumborg, leased with husband Don as a team to Duplainville Transport, says safely backing up requires remaining cool and not rushing it. “No matter how frustrating it is, stay calm,” she says.
Albert Transport independent owner-operator Henry Albert says a driver often encounters backing situations when he or she is not in the perfect frame of mind — either at the end of a long day or at the beginning of duty: “You’ve been thinking of getting to that destination all day, but you have to watch that you don’t drop your guard and say, ‘I’m finally here.’ That’s when you might mess up.”
Dick McCorkle, an owner-operator leased to Hiner Transport, concurs that most accidents happen during the first and last hours of daily driving; that could be at a customer’s dock or a truckstop. There’s no right or wrong way to back up successfully, he adds. The first thing he does is activate his four-way blinkers. “This tells everyone I’m getting ready to do something,” he says. Then he jumps out of the cab to look behind him and in both directions if he’s going to back across a road. He’ll recruit someone to sight for him if he can, then “start to back up. I will probably stop twice just to make sure it’s all clear and nothing is behind me, and then I’ll ease on back. I’ll probably stop within a foot of the dock area or door, get out and see how everything looks before I ease on back.”
Albert says he surveys the area for buildings, vehicles and space to maneuver when he pulls in to the destination to avoid getting trapped with too little space. Get out and take a look before you start moving back. “I saw a guy hit a light pole that was at the back of a parking spot because he didn’t get out to look,” he says.
Stumborg says one facility where she often delivers has a light pole near the loading area. She’s seen drivers hit smaller poles that protect the pole because they couldn’t see them in their mirror and didn’t look for them in advance. Another obstacle at many manufacturing plants are boulders set along a driveway to keep trucks from encroaching on grass, she says.
Albert says he tries to pre-set his vehicle in the direction he wants to move. “I try to pre-set my tractor in relationship to my trailer, so I have it turning in the direction I want to go,” he says. “After I’ve looked to see if there’s enough room to back the trailer, I hug closer to the side of the trailer I can see easier, so I have plenty of clearance on my blind side.”
McCorkle says he makes use of all four of his mirrors for backing up. Albert says his remote adjustable mirrors are effective, especially for blind side backing, because he can turn the mirror to see his trailer longer.
McCorkle rarely rolls down his windows for viewing and stays inside his cab while backing up. He says he’s watched some drivers “stand on the running board and try to steer in. That’s very dangerous,” he says.
Speed while backing up will vary based on driver preference and the transmission type. Albert notes that automated transmissions don’t allow enough idle speed to back up without using the accelerator.
McCorkle says backing up sometimes isn’t as difficult as it might seem. Many times tire tracks or ruts provide a marker for backing into a dock. He also says not to be reluctant about asking the assistance of other drivers if backing conditions are especially difficult. McCorkle’s often called on to help other drivers maneuver into convention center or shopping mall receiving areas.
Stumborg notes that many warehouses and distribution centers have yellow lines painted on the ground to use as a guide for backing into a dock or door. The lines are usually wide enough to accommodate the width of the rig including mirrors. “If there are lines I will go between the lines and not look at the dock door until I’m squared in,” she says.
Don’t get in a hurry, Stumborg says, and miss your alignment at the dock. When she checks in at the loading facility, she makes sure to survey the space in front of the dock, and, when she walks back to chock her tires, she checks her alignment.
Albert says the biggest mistakes he sees in backing technique are when drivers overcorrect in turning and not getting out to survey where they’re going. “There are times when I’m backing into a dock and I’ve gotten out five times to take a look. If I’m not sure it is clear, I want to get out and take a look.”
When maneuvering in a place with limited space, Stumborg employs a driving trick she learned early on in her career. If you’re backed into a loading area where your tractor might be sticking out into a street or alley, she does a “4 by 4” if she can move her tractor 4 inches. Turn your wheel all the way to the left and pull forward 4 inches and stop. Follow that by turning the wheel all the way to the right and back up 4 inches. Continue alternating the left-right turns and forward-back moves. “You will eventually get your tractor to a right angle and out of the street and you will have never moved the back end of the trailer,” she says.
Owner-operator Gina Stumborg often delivers to downtown destinations that were never designed to accommodate 53-foot trailers. She ran into those often during five years of trucking in New York City. “Sometimes you’re backing down one-way streets the wrong way to get into a door,” she says. “It’s very tricky.”
One of Stumborg’s memorable current destinations is the post office in downtown Baltimore, where drivers have to drop off their trailer for unloading after backing in because space is so limited. “It takes a lot of drivers working together to back into that door,” she says. “If you work together you can go in at the same time so you’re not blocking the other driver, and you both can drop your trailers. There’s no give in between. Some drivers take 30 to 40 minutes to get into those docks.”