Smart Driving

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Distance, pay, location and competition are some of the factors that go into selecting your next load

Most of the time, Paul Rowbury knows where his loads are coming from. The owner-operator hauls potatoes every other Friday from near his Flatonia, Idaho, home to Wal-Mart in Ohio. From there, he takes loads arranged by Roadrunner Transportation Services to Seattle or Portland. But to get back home, he needs to find loads. “This year it’s been pretty difficult,” he says. “If I can’t find a load, I have to go empty. I don’t have much choice.”

PaulPaul Rowbury

In a rocky economy, freight is harder to find, and rates are down. Oftentimes, you face a choice of taking a low-paying load, waiting for something better or deadheading to a more lucrative location. But having fewer choices shouldn’t prevent you from exercising smart judgment in the search for good loads.

At the top of the list of factors is profit. If you have a choice between a haul that pays a lot and one that nets a profit, profit usually wins over revenue, says Gary Ayers, vice president at Arlington Heavy Hauling. “We like guys who aren’t too finicky,” he says. “Sometimes guys are attracted to a load because of its color or where it’s going or how it might look on their trailer, instead of what it pays. The key is to take the load that has the most profit.”

The most profit may not go with the longest haul. Ayers says the most savvy drivers are the ones who understand their profit margin and realize they might make more profit on a 300-mile haul than on a 3,000-mile trip. “Those are the guys who are pretty golden because they’ll work a regional area and do pretty well at it,” he says.

Yet Jeff Roach of Brooke Transportation Training says long-mileage trips appeal to many carriers because they can concentrate on driving and not worry as much about dispatchers, brokers and city traffic.

Bryan Jones, president of, says choice of long hauls versus short hauls usually involves personal preference. “You can get more money from a longer haul, but you run the risk of getting a lot farther from home,” he says. “That may work for you. [But] we’re seeing an industry trend that people are trying to get away from really long hauls.”

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The best benchmark in determining the best loads is how well you do per mile, says Don Thornton, senior vice president of freight business services for TransCore. “Everything should be looked at as a per-mile basis,” he says. “That way the driver can compare their actual costs as they relate to the total mileage on the trip.”

Roach says you also want to know how many deadhead miles might be necessary for each load you’re considering. A high-paying load may turn out to be less attractive if you end up driving many empty miles to get your next load. You should also know the load’s weight, Roach adds.

Many operators like lighter loads to help improve miles per gallon and wear on their equipment. Other important considerations include expense items such as tolls, fuel costs and fuel taxes that can eat into your bottom line.

Your chances of securing a profitable load increase when you operate in a market where loads are more plentiful.

Some cities and regions have reputations for being deathbeds for operators seeking outbound profitable loads. Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, says the Northeast and several East Coast markets have seen low pay recently. The Northwest used to offer good rates for hauling fruit and other produce, but rates have fallen as the number of trucks has risen, he says.

You can help yourself avoid these markets by subscribing to an online load-matching service. For example, TransCore’s DAT 360 service offers a Hot States indicator that gives the load-to-truck ratio in different markets.

For example, a 4-to-1 ratio tells you freight is plentiful and rates should be higher. Conversely, a ratio of 0.5-to-1 gives a signal that available freight will carry lower rates. The service can tell you what states to avoid and which ones might be worth carrying a load into.

In deciding which loads to take, you might want to look beyond the haul at hand, Jones says, to position yourself for the next load. “While I may get a profitable load from A to B, going from B to C may not be profitable, or I may get stuck for a couple of days,” he says. “You almost need to be looking one or two loads ahead.”

Another consideration in deciding whether to take a load is the long-term business potential. You might ask the broker if the haul might turn into a steady lane. “If I do a good job could this be a recurring load that maybe I could turn into a contract situation, some sort of dedicated run?” Jones says. “Is this a regular load I can do for you guys every week?”

Hot states, cold states

Where the loads are can vary considerably from day to day.

Here’s a snapshot of where the balance between active loads and trucks was the best and the worst on Oct. 5.

Hot States


Cold States


And while load boards can be a good source for hauls, many operators try to use them sparingly. They are often used as a source of finding a load for a backhaul or to get out of a slow freight market. Some drivers use them occasionally to cultivate a long-term relationship with a broker. “The first couple of years in business, brokers and carriers use load boards,” Roach says. “After that you probably won’t use them anymore. You’ll call brokers you’ve been doing business with.”

On his own, Rowbury found the potato run with an Idaho farmer who packs and ships his own potatoes. It’s steady and pays $8 per hundredweight, or $1.75-$1.80 per mile, and Rowbury runs close to 80,000 pounds most of the time.

Sources Online subscription service for getting freight rates, load information and diesel prices for lanes you select. Load board Load board