This Way or That Way?

The novice might look at his atlas and decide that the best way to get to Chicago from Boston is I-95 and I-80. The veteran, meanwhile, may decide to avoid the obvious pitfalls of The Apple and take I-90 and I-84 out of New England, then use I-81 to hook up with I-80 at the 264 yard stick. From there, it’s a straight shot.

Even the novice can find Chicago. But route planning is seldom as simple as getting from Point A to Point B. Luckily, there are many tools that can help you including road atlases and computer software.

Every trip has its kinks, its detours and its mysteries. As Ray Kasicki, a longtime owner-operator now running for Mawson and Mawson, says, “You have to consider it all; traffic, tolls, time and weather. The shortest route is not always the best.” Getting to point B the least expensive, most efficient way should be a driver’s top priority. To do that, the smart driver plans his work, then works his plan.

Some carriers stress the importance of route or trip planning. It is a way to maintain the driver’s productivity. A driver’s paycheck is after all based on cents per mile. Running a 70-hour/eight-day log at top productivity, given variables like differing speed limits, means a driver can run about 3,300 miles per week. This amounts to 165,000 miles a year if the driver takes two weeks off. Still, running consistently close to the legal limit is unlikely, even if there is plenty of freight.

Gary Blackman, a driver for Crete Carrier, logged 175,000 legal miles last year. He did this by logging hub miles, Crete’s policy. Blackman, who has been driving for 30 years, says route planning is a very big part of his productivity. “I often look at my map after getting dispatched, then call the terminal to get practical miles. I constantly revise my route if I can to save time. In the winter, I watch the weather very closely and plan routes accordingly. I never log more than nine hours a day.”

Unless you want to drive 175,000 hub miles a year, you may want to adopt a route planning strategy that offers a little more down time.

Everybody knows there is a big difference between actual miles driven and paid miles. Logging actual miles obviously puts the driver at a disadvantage, since it shows the driver is going faster and has gone farther than if he logged paid miles. Calculating every segment of your trip on paid miles may give you the advantage of being able to travel farther in the same amount of time. Your atlas can help with this. So can your computer.

There are a number of websites with free routing links like eTrucker.com’s “Routing” tool, which uses the ProMiles program. Or you can use software such as Rand McNally’s ROUTETOOLS. These allow you to plan stops and calculate mileages. By using the shortest miles program, you will come up with a near equivalent of paid miles.

Amy Krause, Director of Marketing for Rand McNally, says, “A driver can download household goods miles and routes to understand what he is being paid to do. ROUTETOOLS also gives construction updates and fuel stop info which can be sorted based on the services a driver wants.”

Not having a laptop should not keep you from calculating miles. Route planning programs like ROUTETOOLS can read out where truckstops are and what services are available, but there are also books available at most truckstops that give the same information.

It is wise to remember that many carriers now track every electronic transaction for those services against logs. Certainly the DOT can do this. So your mileage calculation needs to be done between every point at which you perform an electronic transaction, including fueling and tolls. The result of saving miles and hours will increase productivity and might well get you home rather than stuck a hundred miles from the house and out of hours.

Calling your receiver ahead of delivery can save you from getting caught in a tight spot.

Drivers who have been around awhile can look at their trip plans and know what services are available at the places they stop. Many drivers plan their trips around certain truckstops or places they want to be, especially where they want to spend the night.

If you are running for a carrier with a fuel system, you certainly need to plan your fuel stops. Often the company fuel stop is not where you want to eat or sleep. So your needs must be taken care of while you also keep the company happy and preserve your safety or fuel bonuses. It is estimated there are more than 180,000 miles of truck-usable roads in the United States, but they are only a small percentage of all roads. So your trip planning often includes finding out which roads are truck-friendly. While most truck miles are driven on the National Network, some delivery and pick-up points can be hidden among a variety of obstacles like low bridges, 53-foot trailer restrictions, frost laws and bridges with weight limits. A driver might also not be able to scale his load before crossing the scales on the big road, which means he may want to find a legal route to the nearest public scale before taking his chances with the revenuers. If you research a trip from Beaver Falls, Pa., to Danielson, Conn., you will find several roads in the Beaver Falls area that are not legal if you are pulling a 53-footer. Even small industrial towns within sight of major highways can have low or weight-restricted bridges. Often there is only one way in to a plant and one way out. Making a mistake and getting lost in an area unknown to you can be very costly. Route planning minimizes such mistakes.

Universal Maps has the distinction of listing 62,000 cities, more than any other atlas. Universal is partner with ProMiles and its printed maps support ProMiles services, according to Susan Hazzard, Division Manager for Universal Maps. Many small towns in the hinterlands will appear on Universal’s index, simplifying some trips to out of the way locations.

However, very few sources of information can be expected to include all the details needed to manage the curve balls a trip can throw. You should also call your receiver for verification and to check details. Krause admits, “Street level detail is not entirely available in the software.” In Chicago, for instance, making the mistake of turning just one block off route and under a railroad trestle can mean the difference between keeping your roof intact and losing it. Here the level of detail you need to know is extremely specific. Your wrong left may not even look wrong until you discover there is a beam in the dark interior of the underpass hanging down 6 inches lower than the others. In the end, whether you hit that beam or have to back out depends on your foresight in having brought along a flashlight, a tape measure, and the patience to do the on the spot homework necessary to save you a very big hassle.

Alice Menzel of Menzel Crane drives a straight truck that is 12 feet 8 inches tall. She says, “I am especially careful in Chicago. No map in the world tells you about the one low beam in the middle of a dark underpass.”

Tom Menzel, Alice’s husband, has been driving for well over three decades and he has devised a way to avoid confrontations with unyielding overhead objects. He has developed what he calls “a bridge feeler” gadget. “I put an antenna 13 feet, 6inches high on the driver’s side front bumper for East Coast bridges and a 14-foot antenna on the other for west of the Mississippi I started doing this in 1972 when I hit a bridge that was incorrectly marked. If the antenna touches anything the sound is noticeable.” Tom Menzel says there are other, more high tech ways to measure bridge height, like ultrasonic pocket units and rangefinders used to measure tree height that are available from forestry and hunters’ catalogs.

Generally speaking, fleet drivers do not have to make decisions about whether to take toll roads. Company policy dictates which toll roads can be used and under what circumstances. Often toll roads provide a savings in miles even if that savings does not equal the amount paid out in tolls. There is, of course, hazmat routing to consider too.

Every trip is different. A driver can be lulled into a false sense of security by trouble free big road miles then find himself looking at a 53-foot restricted piece of road with the local constabulary waiting. There are many tools to help the smart driver do his planning from tape measure to software programs.

Rand McNally Motor Carriers’ Road Atlas has low bridges, restricted routes, construction and condition hotlines, and it is cross-referenced with ROUTETOOLS. It can be invaluable. In the end, your success depends on how thoroughly you plan. Finding that final level of detail, the level that keeps you from hitting that bridge or pulling your 53-footer down a skinny two-lane meant only for 48-footers, will always be up to you.

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