Information revolution

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?

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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.”

Humbles says C.I. Whitten was one of the first companies to install Qualcomm in its trucks back in the early 1990s. “They could track us then,” he says. “If there was ever any problem, they knew where we were, and that kept us in touch with dispatchers, too.”

“Back then we used the CB radio to find out about traffic and weather,” Humbles says. “But now I use XM satellite radio. It has channels for traffic in every major metropolis. I can dial up Miami, Dallas, New York or wherever and find out what I need to know.” Humbles received a guide to the channels from XM, “but I just flip through the channels until I find the city I’m looking for.”

It’s difficult to say which invention made more information easily available to drivers: wireless Internet or cell phones.

“I got the wireless Internet, so if I have any problems I can boot it up anywhere,” says Janco LTD company driver David Nelson of Joliet, Ill. Nelson, on his way from South Florida to Texas, taps into the World Wide Web for information about traffic, among other things. “If I have any problems, I can go to the DOT website.”

He was concerned about getting through Louisiana and Mississippi on I-10 and I-12. “I’ll get online and see what they have in the way of road closures,” he says. “The best place to go is the state DOT. I just do a general search with Yahoo! to find their websites.”

Wireless Internet puts an almost limitless amount of information at a driver’s fingertips.

But some drivers don’t carry computers, and Nelson admits that sometimes for the latest and most accurate information his cell phone is better. “If I need to I can call state police for information about road closures and traffic and stuff,” he says. He gets the phone numbers from his Rand McNally Motor Carriers’ Atlas. “They’re the state cops in charge of all the roads, so they would know.”

Nelson recalls a trip from Wheeling, W.Va., to Chattanooga, Tenn. “We wanted to cut across on I-79, but we called the West Virginia DOT and found out they had a low bridge,” he says.

Nelson says he normally doesn’t worry too much about traffic jams. “I know I’m going to run into that somewhere,” he says. “But weather I like to know about, especially during the winter. If I’m going to run through a snowstorm, I might deviate my route a little bit to miss that.”

Nelson gets his weather information from his XM radio, the Weather Channel on televisions in truckstops or from with his laptop computer and wireless Internet access. But he also gets information from the newspaper.

“I like reading USA Today,” he says. “I’ll spend 50 or 75 cents a day to read that. It gets a little pricey, but I’ll pay it, and I get my news and weather information from that.”

Janco LTD specializes in moving entertainers from show to show, and Nelson gets routes, directions to customers and information about parking from his boss.

“The lead driver on tour with us will have all the information I need,” he says. Sometimes he’s the lead driver. “Then I have to make sure everybody has it – directions, parking, where the docks are, routes.” Nelson says he mostly communicates with co-workers via cell phone and CB radio, although they meet in truckstops as well.

General trucking industry news and information can be helpful as well, and Humbles gets this from Internet websites. “I can check on carrier safety ratings at the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s website,” he says. “I can make sure their insurance is current and see what kind of coverage they got. That’s what you can do with government websites like that.”

Humbles says his cell phone helps him get better information from and form better relationships with the brokers he uses. “I can’t do everything on my own,” he says. “But I’m a one-truck company, and I have to be able to trust the brokers I deal with.”

“I use my cell phone to get a hold of them,” he says. “I have their home numbers. I can call them in the middle of the night and get them out of bed if I have to, and they’ll help.”

Some carriers might not know how important information about freight and loads can be to a driver. But nothing frustrates a driver more and chases him or her away from a job faster than a dispatcher or fleet manager saying “we’ll call you” and then leaving the driver dangling in the wind, often for days, with no information and hundreds of miles from home.

It’s critically important for trucking companies to regularly keep their drivers informed: why they’re sitting, why there’s no freight. Waiting for days in a strange place without information is powerfully alienating and demoralizing.

“We all need to work together at a deeper depth of relationship than just the surface,” Humbles says. “The drivers, the receivers, the dispatchers and the brokers all need to share information. You got to have everything in the picture. You have to have all the information to make informed choices. We all need to educate ourselves with the facts.”

Information Sources
The information drivers need to do their jobs well is in more abundance and more accessible than ever before.

Below are some good sources of information along with their physical and web addresses and phone numbers.

American Trucking Associations: Primarily for trucking company owners, this organization has information about every aspect of the trucking industry from related state and national legislation to safety issues to trucking rodeos.
(703) 838-1700

Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance: Not a government organization, the CVSA is an excellent source of information about vehicle inspections and applicable laws. State DOT and traffic enforcement officers who actually perform or have performed inspections provide the facts.
(202) 775-1623

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration: Part of the U.S. DOT and the overall legal authority in the trucking industry, the FMCSA has information about all applicable laws, safety ratings, operating authority insurance, et cetera, et cetera. It’s also linked to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
(800) 832-5660

Transportation Security Administration: Also part of the U.S. DOT, the TSA was formed in 2002 by mandate of the USA PATRIOT Act and focuses primarily on national security issues, including international background checks for drivers seeking HAZMAT endorsements on their CDLs.
(866) 289-9673

National Association of Truck Stop Operators: Not all truckstops belong to NATSO, but most of them do, especially the big chains. Contact them with issues about accessibility, parking, fuel quality or anything else to do with truckstops.
(888) 275-6287 The website related to Truckers News, Overdrive and Commercial Carrier Journal, offers information about all things trucking, from driver opinions to job openings to current industry news.

Truck.Net: Another website for truckers, Truck.Net has information about the trucking industry and an extensive job database. Its “Drivers RoundTable” gives drivers an opportunity to chat with each other about all things trucking.

As their names imply, the following organizations have information for owner- and lease-operators.

Owner-operators Independent Drivers Association
(816) 229-5791

The National Association of Small Trucking Companies
(800) 264-8580

American Independent Truckers’ Association
(601) 924-9606

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