Back it up
You travel most of your miles going forward, but knowing how to safely put it in reverse is a prized skill that’s more art than science
You burn the miles driving down the four-lanes, but you earn your money — and your reputation — backing up when get your load and drop it at its destination.
Backing up to a loading dock or warehouse door, often between other trailers, across a street, avoiding traffic or with limited space to turn, requires experience, patience, smart use of your mirrors and caution. If you don’t get it right, it will cost you — in your wallet or your career.
“It’s one of the key things in driving,” says Kurt Grote, an owner-operator leased to John Christner Trucking. “That’s when most of your accidents are going to occur.”
Grote, a 17-year driving veteran, says it’s one of the most difficult maneuvers he faces. “You’re looking one way and turning the opposite way. For me it’s more rhythm than mechanics. I turn the wheel this way, and my head goes the opposite way. For me it’s like a dance.”
Henry Albert, independent owner-operator of Albert Transport, says a driver often encounters backing up when he or she is not at his or her best — either at the end of a long day or at the beginning of duty. “You’ve been thinking of getting to that destination all day, but you have to watch that you don’t drop your guard and say, ‘I’m finally here.’ That’s when you might mess up.”
Dick McCorkle, an owner-operator leased to Perkins Specialized Transportation, agrees that most accidents happen during the first and last hours of a driving day. That could be at a customer’s dock or a truckstop.
Each backing move is a new adventure, Grote adds. “Each dock, each hole, each parking space is so much different than the last one,” he says. “Each time I back it, I always attack it as a brand-new back.”
McCorkle doesn’t think there’s a right or wrong way to back up successfully. The first thing he does is activate his 4-way blinkers. “This tells everyone I’m getting ready to do something,” he says. Then he jumps out of the cab to look behind him and in both directions if he’s going to back across a road. He’ll recruit someone to sight for him if he can.
“I start to back up,” McCorkle says. “I will probably stop twice just to make sure it’s all clear and there’s nothing behind me, and then I’ll ease on back. I’ll probably stop within a foot of the dock area or door, get out and see how everything looks before I ease on back.”
Albert says he surveys the area’s surroundings for buildings, vehicles and space to maneuver when he pulls in to the destination to avoid getting trapped with too little space. “I saw a guy hit a light pole that was at the back of a parking spot because he didn’t get out to look,” he says.
Albert says he tries to pre-set his vehicle in the direction he wants to move. “After I’ve looked to see if there’s enough room to back the trailer, I hug closer to the side of the trailer I can see easier, so I have plenty of clearance on my blind side,” he says.
Grote says he practices the “GOAL system — get out and look. I practice that religiously no matter how tired I am.” He looks for the dock door and then what’s in the opposite direction to determine whether he’ll have enough real estate to swing around his tractor.
In assessing the dock area, Grote notes if trailers are on either side and how close they are. He recalls instances when he’s backed into a space where he was close to touching mirrors. “I approach my door at a 45-degree angle,” Grote says. “That’s easiest for me. I always roll down my windows, not only to look at the back end of my trailer, but there might be someone out there hollering at me to see something.”
He’ll turn his head and look at the trailer backend to see if it’s where he wants it to be. “If not, I will pull up and do it again,” he says. “It doesn’t matter how many pull-ups you do, what matters is you don’t have any damage when you get back to the dock doors. You’re taking something that’s 75 or 80 feet long and sliding it into a slot.”
McCorkle makes use of all four of his mirrors for backing. Albert says his remote adjustable mirrors are effective, especially for blindside backing, because he can turn the mirror to see his trailer longer.
McCorkle rarely rolls down his windows for viewing and stays inside his cab while backing up. He says he’s watched some drivers “stand on the running board and try to steer in. That’s very dangerous.”
Speed while backing will vary based on driver preference and the transmission type. Albert notes that automated transmissions don’t allow enough idle speed to back up without using the accelerator. Grote says his manual transmission enables him to back up at idling speed, which is fast enough for him. “Take your time, clear your head and look around you,” he says. “The faster you go, when you hit something, the more damage you’re going to do.”
McCorkle says backing sometimes isn’t as difficult as it might seem. Many times tire tracks or ruts provide a marker for backing into a dock. He also says not to be reluctant about asking for assistance from other drivers if backing conditions are especially difficult. McCorkle’s often called on to help others maneuver into convention center or shopping mall receiving areas.
For Grote, one of the toughest situations for backing is when dock lighting is dim. In some cases, the delivery area is totally dark. “You might have sunshine outside but when you look in your mirrors, all you see is a black hole,” he says. “You’re basically backing blind.”
True blindside backing is when you have to approach a slot and back in from the right side. Grote says other than taking a first-hand look before backing, all you have to work with are your mirrors. “If you’re in a hard blind, your mirror might not tilt out far enough. You have to work your mirror, your steering wheel and watch everyone else to see what’s going on. That’s not really recommended unless you’re in a daycab and you can look over your shoulder at the back of your trailer,” he says.
According to Albert, the biggest mistakes he sees in backing technique are when drivers overcorrect in turning or don’t get out to survey where they’re going. “There are times when I’m backing into a dock, and I’ve gotten out five times to take a look. If I’m not sure it is clear, I want to get out and take a look.”
Trucking Rodeo Veteran
Dick McCorkle is preparing for his 46th Indiana state truck championship, the same number of years he’s been a professional driver. He says he’s been runner-up several times and won a passel of other prizes but never placed first.
The owner-operator says backing is a major component of the state championship and a skill he learned early on. He began driving farm tractors pulling wagons at age 14 and grabbed his first trucking job at 17. An uncle helped teach him along the way.
“You learned by just getting in the truck and doing it,” he recalls. “There were not [truck driving] schools or anybody around to give you any help. If you couldn’t back up, they couldn’t use you. Back then the trucking companies would let you use their equipment to practice on Saturday and Sunday.”