Heavy-haul drivers equip their trucks with highly visible caution signs and lights to warn passing drivers.
The difference between heavy-haul drivers and general-freight drivers is not just the equipment, number of axles or the hours – it’s their personality.
“It’s in their blood,” specialized hauling managers say over and over again. When it comes to hauling million-dollar machinery around the country, one personality trait is essential – patience.
Specialized drivers are truckers with 20 or more years of experience who have a keen sense of the road and the machinery they operate. They appreciate the intricacies of loading and unloading air tanks, oddly shaped buildings, excavators and bulldozers; and many heavy haulers know how to operate all types of construction equipment.
An exhaustive knowledge of machinery, state regulations and the driver’s own equipment is essential.
Bob Davies, a heavy-haul driver for Daily Express, has been driving a truck for 25 years. After the first 10 years, Davies wanted to try something different so he began to train as a heavy-haul driver. He started off with flatbeds and vans and gradually moved his way up to heavier machinery.
“I like the challenge,” Davies says. “Anything big, I’ll haul.”
Davies hauls anything that exceeds standard measurements, which are 8 feet 6 inches wide, 13 feet, 6 inches high, 75 feet long and 80,000 pounds. If a load exceeds the standards by even an inch, it is considered over-dimensional and is subject to individual state regulations.
Every state has different rules and regulations that over-dimensional loads have to follow, so drivers like Davies carry the Oversize Load and Pilot Car Directory when driving. The rulebook also includes sunrise and sunset regulations, which tell the driver how long before sunrise and how long after sunset an oversized load can be on the road. Different states frustrate different drivers, and although Davies tries to stay out of California, he isn’t put off by any challenge.
Heavy hauling often is a waiting game, hours of downtime spent waiting to load machinery, waiting to unload, and waiting for four-wheelers to pass and cut in front of your truck without the slightest nod or wave.
“You have to have patience more than anything,” Davies says. “Some guys say, ‘there ain’t no way,’ but you couldn’t pay me not to do this. I like hauling the big boys’ toys.”
Davies’ recent run with a turbine from Florida to upstate New York grossed nearly 120,000 pounds and sat on 38 wheels of trailer. He arrived at the turbine plant to pick up at 7 a.m. and didn’t get the load until around 5 p.m. – just another part of the waiting game that Davies’ escorts, Jim Hutcheson and Al Lorshbaugh, say come with the job.
“We wait,” Hutcheson says. “We’ve been here all day.”
Lorshbaugh, retired from the New York State Police since 1999, knew he couldn’t stand a desk job or just hanging around the house. With no previous trucking experience, he became a heavy-haul escort.
“I love the freedom,” Lorshbaugh says. “I had to get back out on the road after I retired.”
Hutcheson has been an escort for seven years and spent 30 years as a truck driver.
Ask anybody in specialized hauling and they will say that good escorts are one in a million. Using their own pickup trucks, Hutcheson and Lorschbaugh drive about a mile in the front of Davies and 100 feet behind him to warn the public, protect the road and give Davies a heads up.
Lorshbaugh is the front driver and carries a tall, thin PVC pipe on the front hood of his white Dodge pickup to measure the height of bridges and overpasses in case Davies can’t clear them.
The escort’s primary job is to know the regulations for each state that the team will pass. For Davies the escorts had to have a perfect understanding of the routes they will take through Alabama, Tennessee and all the way up through New York. Any infraction, like choosing an alternate route instead of the one listed in the Directory, could result in fines and driving suspension. And then there are the permits.
For each state a heavy-haul driver runs through, he has to get a permit. For escorts, the permits extend to certifications for each state. Some states are the same, so having certifications in rigorous states might mean that you are covered in others. Escort certifications and insurance policies in New York, Virginia, Kansas and Florida can get you around most places, but drivers still have to double check depending on the machinery.
For permits, certifications and insurance, the responsibility belongs to both the escorts and the drivers, although an escort can receive a ticket even if a driver didn’t make the infraction.
Davies used to be a firefighter in west Pennsylvania before he switched to trucking for Daily Express in Carlisle, Penn. His experience with heavy-hauling has taught him an important lesson.
“You gotta like it,” Davies says. “No, you gotta love it.”
Tim Burke, president of Sammons Trucking in Missoula, Mont., still drives occasionally for Sammons, a company with 45 years of trucking experience and 10 years of specialized-hauling experience. With owner-operators who specialize in heavy-hauling, you can count on their professionalism, Burke says.
“We make sure that we have drivers who can handle the business,” Burke says. “They have to have the best escorts, they have to know the routes they are going to take to haul the machinery, and they have to check and recheck their permits and regulations for each state. There is a lot of planning.”
“Load planning is a huge factor,” Daily Express recruiter Erik Thompson says. “You don’t simply book a load from point A to point B. You have to hire the right driver whose skill matches the load.”
The excess waiting time for heavy-haulers, who, like Davies, may not receive a piece of equipment until hours after they arrive to load it, is compounded by the fact that the theoretical weight of a piece of machinery may be different than the actual weight. When a customer delivers the weight of a machine over the phone, there is a chance the weight may be different when the driver shows up to pick up the load. Drivers have to know their equipment well and adjust to this, changing the combination of tractor-trailer to accommodate the new weight. Drivers also are responsible for securing their loads.
“It’s waiting and weighing,” Burke says.
Sammons heavy-haul driver Mike Storey from Delanson, N.Y., has been driving for more than 20 years. Storey notes the wide variety of regulations between some states make heavy hauls challenging. North Dakota, he says, has a rule that states an over-dimensional load can’t run on certain two-lane highways if the temperature is above 85 degrees. In Minnesota, drivers can’t run on the opening weekend of Walleye fishing season. But like all other heavy-haul drivers, Storey loves the pace of heavy-hauling, set at a maximum of around 60 mph to 65 mph with the day of the week as the delivery time.
“The most enjoyable thing is that there is no rush,” Storey says. “Customers give you ample time to get there, so there is no pressure.”
Watching out for other drivers on the road can be a challenge, however.
“It’s surprising how many people don’t even see us,” Storey says.
James Crill, a driver for Daily Express, agrees that four-wheelers often don’t pay attention to drivers.
“I just need a lot of room, and people are terrible about not looking behind them before crossing over the lane,” Crill says.
And with enormous loads like turbines, tractors and statues of presidents, people should look out.
“It’s a constant challenge,” says Mike Poppy, a driver for 14 years and president of Precision Heavy Haul, Inc., in Phoenix. “It’s different every day, but satisfying the customer is the No. 1 thing.”
Overpasses, signs, lights, width restrictions and constructions are some of the challenges that make heavy-hauling an adventure, Poppy says. Some loads are even wider than the existing road. One time, Poppy was hauling mirrors for a telescope on the top of Mt. Graham in Arizona. The road wasn’t wide enough, so Poppy had to stand the mirrors at a 45-degree angle to make it up the hill.
“We are constantly adapting to customer’s equipment,” Poppy says. “We [Precision] have a fabrication shop, so we can get up or down a road if we need to make changes.”
Although heavy-hauling can be a headache at times, many drivers enjoy the fact that some states prohibit over-dimensional driving at night. Apart from hauling turbo machines like rock crushers and bulldozers, Crill loves the hours.
“I get to go to sleep at night,” he says. “This is the best job I’ve ever had in my life.”
Eric Shaw of Macedon, N.Y., has been a driver for 33 years.
“It’s not such a rat race,” Shaw says. “You sleep every night.”
But what really attracts drivers to hauling windmill turbines and huge aquariums in the shape of turtles?
For Davies, it’s the attention. When hauling turbines, people stop and ask him if his load is a fallout shelter, a space shuttle or the Jolly Green Giant’s washtub.
“I love to see little kid’s eyes light up when you drive through a small town,” he says.