Squeeze Plays

Maneuvering in close quarters requires a steady hand and clear head.

Inventors have created hundreds of tools to make truck driving safer and easier. But maneuvering in tight spaces is one skill that can’t be replaced by technology – the driver must have the knowledge, patience and ability to do it and do it well, whether squeezing through tight spots moving forward or back, making turns in city traffic or jockeying through crowded freight yards.

The real key to backing is to recognize right off the bat that every backing situation is different. This is true not only in the sense that there is left side backing, blindsiding and jacking, but in the sense that even the most common sort, left side backing, often presents plenty of variations depending upon the size of the yard, the angle of the dock to the street, the number of obstacles, the length of your unit, the length of your trailer and where you’ve put your slider.

Norm Ruff, a career truck driver now retired, remembers one dock with a number of unique qualities. “There was a cyclone fence at one end of an S-shaped road leading to the dock. The gate was at an angle to the road, and you had to serpentine down the road to get to the dock,” he says. “If you got off the road, you were in the mud. It was about a hundred yards from the gate to the dock. It wasn’t easy. Anything longer than that old 40-footer I had would have been real hard, maybe not doable at all.”

When maneuvering in tight spaces, patience is vital. The last thing you want to do is get in a rush just when you need to take a deep breath and slow your mind down. Pulling into your drop in the nick of time can easily cloud your focus. A cluttered environment requires extra time and attention to understand. There are obvious obstacles, like the car on your blindside parked next to the door you’re supposed to hit, or parked out front where you can lose sight of it as you try to get back under the trailer.

Other obstacles you might not even notice unless you take the time to get out and have a good look around. Low objects like fire hydrants surrounded by those yellow poles, for example, don’t always show up in your mirror.

One of the last things that comes to mind is an overhead. Whether it’s a low bridge in Chicago or an overhang above some one-horse factory dock in Podunk, an overhead can ruin your day. While you may be aware of your vehicle’s height, length and width, the same may not be true for the bridge you didn’t plan on or the dock with the overhang.

Truckstops are perhaps more hazard-filled than loading docks and yards. Parking is very often at a premium, and older truckstops were not made for today’s 53-foot trailers. Trying to shoehorn into the last available hole at the end of a long day when you’re tired creates stress. The combination of fatigue and stress can turn the mind to mush, making that last hole seem smaller and tighter.

The aspect of maneuvering in tight spaces that is most important, and most often ignored, is the mental state you bring to the task. If you are not in control of your mind, you cannot be in control of your equipment. The key to exact maneuvering is to approach the task with a clear mind and a plan.

Plans are not possible when tight spots develop in traffic or arise unexpectedly in any situation. But in most instances, you can see a tight spot developing. Sometimes it is best to avoid them altogether. Nearly all experienced drivers understand the need to check out a parking lot or dockyard before entering it to discover whether getting out will be possible. Still, it is easy to be taken by surprise. Getting off the pavement can mean trouble any time, and a walk around your projected route is always a good idea.

It does no good to listen to the advice of those dock hands who tell you how the other guys do it. You have to make sure – for yourself – that your equipment will fit.

Don’t get into a situation from which you cannot extract yourself. Remember, for example, that your truck is going to be higher when it’s empty. You might unload after having gone under some low obstacle and not be able to get out when you’re empty. Or you can find yourself having to serpentine through a maze of cars and building materials that have been rearranged while you were unloading.

Don Shamblen, a 35-year veteran of the road, delivers to a construction dealers’ supply yard in Columbus, Ohio. “There isn’t enough space there to begin with,” says Shamblen, who drives for Allied Dealers Supply in Cleveland, Tenn. “Even with this 42-footer, it’s tight. You have to pull in around piles of brick, sand and gravel. Then the situation is always changing because of customers coming in and out with their vehicles and parking wherever they want. You can get in there and then have to wait or get two or three people to move their trucks.”

To serpentine or simply to hit a left-hand dock, you have to understand wheel cut, and you have to know where your trailer wheels are. Those two factors can often be the difference between getting in, getting out or calling safety to report an accident. It may help in some tight backing situations to shorten up your slider all the way and move the fifth wheel forward. You can make your 53-footer turn like a 48, but there is still that long overhang to remember.

Being aware of your truck’s dimensions and its capabilities is very important. Besides overhang, it’s easy to forget the right and left hand trailer corners and even the drive tires. Overhang can cause you to clip a car you wouldn’t have clipped if you hadn’t tightened up the slider. And your front corners can move out away from your line of travel and hit cars, poles, etc. Even drive tires can swing out when you’re backing and catch low objects you haven’t seen in your mirror. Remember, your combination is not always the same width – as you maneuver, the width changes.

Loading at an outside dock where the ground is uneven can also cause surprises. You can back in, and your trailer may be leaning a little. But when it’s loaded, the lean can be much worse. So your trailer may be closer to the mirror on the truck next to you than it was when you pulled in. You can roll down into a depression and lean as you’re pulling out, and all of a sudden the guy’s mirror is smithereens.

Tight situations are innumerable, and they are all different. You can’t prepare for all of them.

Sometimes you have to be ready and do what needs to be done quickly. One good example is making a tight right turn against oncoming traffic with pedestrians on the sidewalk on your right where you can’t see them. Now is no time to take a short cut over the curb with your trailer axles. Now is the time to do it right the first time. You can’t jockey here. It helps if you’ve seen the corner and been able to pull out into the left lane as far as you need to pull, leaving your trailer in the right lane to block unthinking four-wheelers. Then you can start your turn without worrying about cars clogging up your right or left hand side.

Pull out as far as you have to into the intersection and wait until cars on the cross street have cleared or backed up. Make your turn and use as much of the street as you must to stay clear of that pedestrian on the corner that you can’t see in your mirror. If you have a motorized right side mirror, toggle it out to get a look. But don’t drag your trailer through a space that is not visible to you, not when you could hit a pedestrian or clip a pole closer to the corner. Use as much of the visible space in front of you and proceed with patience and courage.

No one can tell you how to maneuver in every situation. You must develop the mindset and the skills to meet these situations. You must recognize what can and cannot be done. Never assume and never rush.

Tips for Maneuvering in Tight Spaces

  1. Know and understand the dimensions of your vehicle. Make it a piece of pretrip business to check trailer height, position of fifth wheel and where your slider is set.
  2. Going anywhere but straight ahead means your equipment has changed dimensions when drive wheels, overhang and steering axle protrude. Be aware how your need for space increases as these situations develop.
  3. Wheel cut is a significant aspect of maneuvering. Know how far your wheels turn before you find out they don’t turn far enough.
  4. If you have to blindside, you’re going to lose sight of the end of your trailer at some point. Get out and look.
  5. Advanced maneuvers like jackknifing to a dock take experience. Develop those skills when you have the opportunity.
  6. Backing into a dock in a dark building means you are losing sight of your trailer in the shadows. Get out and look.
  7. Left hand docks you have to hit by arcing your trailer rather than lining up at a right angle require you to adjust backing technique to fit the situation. Be ready to change your perspective when you have to perform different paths to the dock.
  8. When you must, slide your trailer axles before trying to get into a tight spot. But remember to readjust when you leave. There may be a coop right down the road.
  9. Understand how much clearance you have over your front fenders, in particular the right front fender.
  10. Spot mirrors are great, but they distort distance and should not be used to judge space when backing.
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