Multi-pulls

| October 01, 2006

Refueling can be easier for multiple-trailer rigs because they can make tighter turns into and out of the fuel island.

Do you consider yourself a top driver? Love to try new things? Enjoy a challenge?
Try this.

Pulling doubles or triples can dramatically change the way you work. For example, you’ll never have to back into a dock again. You could also find yourself working fewer hours, spending more time at home and even earning more money.

“Most of our guys make somewhere between $45,000 and $55,000 a year,” says Bill Bennett, safety director at Southeastern Freight Lines in Lexington, S.C.

It’s the same at other multiple-trailer freight carriers.

The runs are mostly dedicated and follow daily or weekly schedules. This means more clear, definite job descriptions with no monkey business, like sitting for hours at a dock instead of driving.

“We have more than enough time to do what we have to do, so we don’t have to kill ourselves,” says Saia company driver Louis McPherson of Wellington, Fla. “They work us about 10 hours. We don’t have 14- and 15-hour shifts.”

Also, the tractors are mostly day cabs, and multiple-trailer rigs can’t back into parking spaces, so no more sleeper bunks or 10-hour breaks in truckstops. McPherson stays in hotels when he’s out more than a day.

“We usually run somewhere in the 500-550-mile range a day,” Bennett says. “Our drivers pick up a set of doubles and run 500 miles down the road, and then go to sleep.” Bennett says Southeastern still has a few bunkrooms for drivers out overnight, “but most times they’ll stay in a hotel,” he says.

The mileage pay at multiple-trailer freight carriers is generally higher: in the 45-55 cents a mile range. That’s why fewer daily miles add up to the same pay that an experienced OTR driver makes by driving longer and farther.

What’s more, LTL carriers handle wide varieties of freight and customers with different needs. This means a greater variety of job assignments for drivers.

“We have our ‘fast turn’ drivers who run out about 250 miles and then turn around and come back,” Bennett says.

“Sometimes you’re away three or four days, and sometimes you’re home every day,” McPherson says. “It all depends on what you want to do: your particular style.”

Most multi-trailer carriers have team and even cross-country assignments.

If that’s not sweet enough, multi-trailer rigs – if the trailers are 28-foot “pups” – corner a lot easier than rigs with 53-foot vans.

“The turning radius is so much tighter than a 53,” Bennett says.

From a driver’s perspective: “When you turn, those trailers follow the truck like kids following their mama,” says McPherson. Minutes later he pulled away from the fuel island and made a tight left turn around the front of another rig pulled too far forward. A driver with a 53-foot van could not have made the turn and would’ve had to wait.

Pulling doubles and/or triples on linehaul runs can allow drivers to find a new way of working without sacrificing pay. But there are a few catches.

All multi-trailer carriers have at least a few daytime runs, but they’re not always open.

“Most of the time you’re doing linehauls pulling doubles you’re going to be driving at night,” McPherson says. “But you get a lot of time to rest, so it’s not like you’re fatigued all the time.”

“Most of our doubles run at night,” Bennett says, and a drive at night on any interstate will show the same is true for most multi-trailer carriers.

“If the driver doesn’t want to be out there for any reason, then we don’t want him out there,” Bennett says.

Doubles and triples haulers have their days off to get rest, and under normal circumstances, they don’t have to push hard to be on time. Depending on the run, there’s time for naps or at least coffee breaks.

“Our runs are timed at an average speed of 45 miles an hour, so there’s plenty of time,” Bennett says. “They do have scheduled departure and arrival times, but generally speaking, they’ll arrive ahead of schedule because we plan it that way.”

Safety is a serious issue, and rightly so. Years ago, both the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration noted that the number of multi-trailer units was increasing, and their handling characteristics were different from those of a semi-rig. In its 1990 recommendation to the FMCSA, the NTSB called for driver training comprehensive of “the widely different handling characteristics of different types of vehicles.”

“For example,” the recommendation says, “relatively small tractor steering movement or braking applications, particularly in a lane change, are magnified by a second trailer and can reach uncontrollable levels, producing considerable yawing and subsequent rollover.”

From this report sprung doubles/triples and tanker endorsements backed by training.

The FMCSA’s response: “Do not assume that a driver of a semi-trailer combination unit can easily make the switch to a multiple-trailer unit with little or no training. Drivers should not be driving these multiple-trailer combination units without this specialized training.”

To satisfy classroom-training requirements, drivers must study for and pass multiple-choice test for the doubles/triples endorsement. As well, some multi-trailer freight companies have training classes during orientation, and some truck driving schools offer similar courses. Most multi-trailer carriers also require a hazmat endorsement.

But that’s just the beginning, because the industry took the call for increased safety and training seriously.

“The main thing is you have to be very conscious of your surroundings,” McPherson says. “You have to be very careful. You can’t follow too close; that’s the most important thing. You have to keep your distance. If somebody comes into that cushion, you have to back off. With more than one trailer, you can’t be too close.”

“You have to keep the truck and trailers as straight as possible,” McPherson adds. “In construction zones you have to slow down because they have those uneven roads, and you don’t want to be weaving back and forth over that. You want to keep it in a straight line and go through those areas at a safe speed.”

“When you’re pulling multiple trailers, you’re more aware of your surroundings and what the trailers are doing,” Bennett says. “But it does take a little bit of getting used to. The back trailer does have a tendency to wiggle; that’s where the word ‘wiggle-wagon’ comes from.”

“When the public sees a doubles or triples rig going down the road and the rear trailer is wiggling, they wonder what’s wrong with the driver and what’s wrong with the truck,” Bennett says. “But that’s mostly just an ordinary situation.”

With training, multi-trailer drivers learn how to keep the “wiggling” to a minimum and to know if it’s normal or dangerous.

All 10 of the accidents cited in the NTSB’s report were caused by too much speed during turns, curves and lane changes. Drivers learn there are no sudden moves or lane changes with doubles and triples, as this can have a “crack the whip” effect that sends the rear trailer into the next lane, or sets all the trailers to weaving snake-like back and forth. By then it’s usually too late.

Another well-learned lesson: “You have to be sure where you’re going because you can’t back up and turn around,” McPherson says. “If you go down a dead-end street, you’re in trouble, so if you’re not sure where you’re going, call somebody and find out.”

“If you follow the routes like the company directs you, then you won’t have a problem,” McPherson says.

McPherson, with 14 years of multi-trailer experience and 34 years overall, says safety starts well before he gets out on the road.

“The company is very safety conscious,” he says. “They issue a small flashlight to the drivers, and we have to actually get down under the dolly and check the safety chain hook-ups and fifth-wheel hook-ups. They want us to visually inspect these things: actually get down there and look at it.

“If you’re not sure, then you go down there and visually check it again.”

Doubles have three pivot points: truck to lead trailer, lead trailer to dolly, and dolly to second trailer. Triples have four pivot points. Those areas must be checked thoroughly.

After safety, there are other issues, such as learning to hook up.

“Some companies used to have yard jockeys who would hook up the trailers for you, but I haven’t seen one of them for a while,” McPherson says.

On a good day, hooking to doubles and triples is merely time consuming. But there will be nights – freezing, rainy ones, for example – when it seems impossible. You take your time, get help and always keep your cool.

With the right training and a little experience, driving multi-trailer rigs might be a good thing for you.
“There’s really no reason not to get into doubles or triples,” Bennett says. “Occasionally a guy might have to unhook or hook trailers together, and that can be a messy, dirty, greasy job. The fifth wheel and glad hands can get greasy.

“But talking with our guys, very seldom do you hear any concerns from any of them about pulling doubles.”

“The only reason a driver would not want to pull doubles or triples is the initial experience,” McPherson says. “He’s secure with a straight trailer, so when he first looks at doubles, he thinks they’re not safe. But once he pulls them a couple of times, he finds it’s not as bad as he thought it was.”

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