Smart Driving

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Truckers use intuition, methodical practice to confront or avoid close spaces

There are 4 million miles of highways and streets in the United States, and you’re trying to maneuver your tractor-trailer down a cobblestone lane built in the 1920s to get to a receiving dock.

Leo Wilkins’ extended-wheelbase tractor and stepdeck trailer sometimes present problems maneuvering narrow streets and finding parking.

 There are 46,751 miles of interstate highways, and your rig is cut off by a four-wheeler wanting to exit at the last minute.

An estimated 185,000 parking spots are available at truckstops along the interstates, but you are forced to squeeze between two rigs at night after driving miles to find a space.

Michael Goldstein tries to use Internet or in-person research before delivering fuel to an unfamiliar facility.

Space is limited in many locations, making it difficult to get around. Many streets and shipping facilities weren’t designed with 53-foot trailers in mind. Planning ahead, getting good directions and using technology will help you avoid tight spots.

If delivering to a cramped warehouse dock, DuWayne Marshall will attempt to mark the tire tracks of a trailer that has just vacated the delivery space.

In city driving, you’re often dealing with narrow streets and heavy traffic. When a turn is approaching, owner-operator DuWayne Marshall says he’s looking far ahead at traffic and potential obstacles. “Sometimes you have to make three left turns to make a right turn you want to make,” he says.

Narrow streets, antiquated docks

Downtowns of older cities, especially in the Midwest and Northeast, present challenges for truckers. Streets in commercial sections of cities were built for 30-foot trailers, about half the length of today’s trailers.

Some older retail chain warehouses contain indoor unloading facilities, says Marshall. Rigs are driven inside the building and trailers are backed in at a 45-degree angle. “Now you have to drop your trailer and bobtail your tractor out because the next guy can’t get around you,” he says.

Marshall says he delivers to an old store in Maine that doesn’t have much space in the rear. To fit the space, the trailer is backed in with the tractor at a 90-degree angle. He says he dropped his load on the first or second try by “cheating.” The first time came after a snow, and he followed the tire tracks of the empty trailer he pulled out to make way for his trailer. When there was no snow, he would mark the tire tracks with his boot heel to help guide him. “Other places, I use anything I have to mark the tread line, like a load block,” Marshall says.

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Tight truckstops

Owner-operator Leo Wilkins says he has to choose truckstops carefully because some parking spaces aren’t long enough to accommodate a normal length tractor-trailer, let alone his rig, which measures 79 feet 10 inches. To maneuver in these spaces, he says he does a lot of “getting out and looking” to make sure he’s aligned correctly.

“I don’t worry about myself, but I worry about someone backing into me,” Wilkins says. “I saw a guy one night back into a truck and raise the hood up. The second time he did it he realized what he had done and beat it out of there. I ran through the parking lot and managed to get his license plate number and called it in.”

Wilkins, who hauls highway construction safety equipment on his stepdeck trailer, tries to park so he has a straight shot out when he’s ready to leave. But that doesn’t always pan out. One morning he woke up to see five rigs obstructing his planned exit.

Marshall says many younger truckers choose to make their own parking spaces at truckstops, compounding the parking problem. “All have to be within 20 feet of the buildings,” he says.

Fuel station deliveries

Some of the most difficult real estate to negotiate for a trucker is the local fueling station. Many stations were built when delivery truck-tankers were shorter, says Michael Goldstein, an owner-operator leased to MG Liquid Logistics Transport.

To avoid surprises when delivering to a new customer, Goldstein will turn to the Internet and use Google Earth to provide an overhead view of the location. He wants to see where tanks, pumps and driveways are located and where he might drive into the property.

If he can’t obtain the information from the Internet and the station is close to where he lives in Southern California, he’ll drive to the facility the day before for a first-hand look. “If I have to go into a location blind, I pull over to the curb, put on the 4-ways and walk the station to see where everything is,” he says. “I’ll go inside and ask the operator how trucks came in before and if they have someone to help me back in.”

Despite his best efforts, Goldstein says he has to watch out for aggressive motorists when making deliveries. “I’ve had cars jump the curb and go on the sidewalk to cut me off and get in ahead of me,” he says. “I’ve had them pull around me and come in the other driveway and block me, so I’m hanging out in the street blocking traffic.”

Avoiding accidents, close calls

Road warriors pass along their tips:

• Know where you’re going. Get directions from a dispatcher, loading dock veteran or someone who understands a truck’s size and local geography.

• Spring for a GPS or road monitoring system programmed for big trucks. Some offer real-time traffic and road construction information, but stay alert to highway signs such as overpass height information and detours.

• See and be seen. Install as many mirrors as needed to give you visibility of your rig, and use them.

• Look before you move. When backing up or driving into an unfamiliar area, get out and assess the terrain and traffic. Don’t hesitate to get out and look more than once.

• Use your horn.

• Slow down and let aggressive drivers pass you by. You always have time to avoid potential trouble.

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