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Speed, fuel economy and pay

“All That’s Trucking” by Deborah Lockridge, Editor in Chief, Evan Lockridge, Contributing Editor

When people ask me about trucking, I often tell them it’s not like “Smokey and the Bandit.” But if you read this article in the Wall Street Journal, you’d think the average trucker wishes they were out there speeding down the highway and outwitting the bumbling sheriff.

“Firms Put Brakes on Truckers” is an article about how with $4 diesel, companies are using technology to cut drivers’ speed to cut fuel costs. OK, that’s certainly true, and a logical approach to dealing with the fact that no matter how many trailer skirts and aero fairings you put on a truck, the driver is still the biggest factor in fuel mileage.

But every trucker WSJ reporter Jeffrey Ball quoted in the article lamented not being able to drive like a speed demon.

Here’s how the story starts out: Gary Vann pines for the days when he could put the pedal to the metal in his 18-wheeler and hurtle down empty stretches of highway at 100 miles per hour. “You talk about fun, man,” the 34-year-old Tennessean said.

Another driver says with the slower speed, “he covers less blacktop, crimping his take-home pay, since truckers are paid by the mile,” the reporter writes. The trucker tells him, “It’s like trying to eat a french fry with a hand over your mouth,” he said. “It’s not going to work.”

The article talks about the perceived good ol’ days of skirting the scales, running three logbooks, and this particularly dangerous stunt that a trucker tried just last month:

Trucker Doug Andersen… whose truck is governed at a maximum of 65 mph, was cruising downhill on Interstate 15, heading from California to Utah, when he slipped his rig into what truckers call “Georgia overdrive,” a guerrilla move to override an engine’s governor. He shifted the moving truck into neutral, letting gravity speed it up. When the speedometer neared 80 mph, the legal speed limit on that stretch of road, a red light flashed on the gray, tablet-size computer wired into the truck’s dashboard. Snagged by his superiors, who call the move dangerous because it makes an 18-wheeler hard to control, Mr. Andersen pulled his truck over and called the dispatcher for his tongue-lashing.

We decided that unlike the reporter, we’d try to get a broader range of opinions on the matter. So we e-mailed some fleet executives, posted it on a LinkedIn discussion group, and posted it on the Facebook page of Sirius XM’s “The Lockridge Report” for discussion. Here’s a sampling of the responses:

No governors

Several drivers on “The Lockridge Report’s” Facebook page agreed with the drivers in the article. Some just seem like they want to drive fast; others said it’s a question of revenue.

“This is why I own my truck, no tattletale and no speed governer. I’ll wave as i pass.”

“My company went from 82 to 72 and I’ve made less and less each year since. The year before the cut I made $61,000 the year after I made $55,000 the year after that $51,000 and this year if I keep getting the miles I am now I’m barely going to make $43,000.”

Several complained that speed governors set too low set up an unsafe situation as cars end up traveling 10 or 20 mph faster than the big rigs. One suggested, “Speed limiters should be set to the speed limit in each and every state, the tech is there to do so.”

One driver apparently thinks it’s all a big conspiracy theory: “It isn’t about safety! The ploy behind governing trucks is solely to serve the interest of the mega carriers. Once everyone has their trucks speed limited to the same, exactly, the small carriers will not be able to make deliveries on time or even legally. The mega carriers will be able to relay trailers and force the smaller carriers to lose customers, eliminating competition.”

Sandra Schafer, an independent freight agent, had a thoughtful comment on LinkedIn: “I think a lot of truckers, AND dispatchers, don’t like the governors and computerized gear. For the trucker, it can mean less money and less time off, and for the dispatcher, it makes their job harder because they have to monitor more closely where their truck is, how long it’s taking to unload, how long will it take to get to the reload, will the reload still be available, and then will my driver have enough hours left to do the load. And don’t forget some of the shippers that don’t have a clue regarding how many hours it takes to deliver their load legally and why they need to pay enough to compensate, and the unrealistic shipping and receiving hours some places have.”

Governors good

Don Lacy, who heads up safety at Prime Inc., had this to say in an e-mail: “The reality today is 7 mpg is average. Our goal is 8 to 9. Our trucks were turned down over a year ago. Fleet managers and drivers are incentivized for fuel economy. Bottom line: If you are buying the fuel [Prime has independent contractors using trucks leased through the company], you won’t survive financially unless you are getting at least 7 mpg. If you are driving a company truck and don’t average above 7 you wont be working here. Do the math. So-called increased productivity from going fast won’t pencil out today.”

John Drake, fleet manager at Duplainville Transport, wrote that the company has limited its trucks’ speed to 60 mph for the past three years. “At first the drivers were complaining about the speed, but their first bonus check calmed them right down. Our drivers have all the tools to achieve 7 plus mpg and most of them hit 7.5 plus. Our figures indicate we save 18-20k a year per truck running 60. Of course we have skirted trailers, gap reducers, air tabs and singles on most of the equipment which all helps, but at the end of the day it is the speed.”

Several drivers on “The Lockridge Report’s” Facebook page said you can still make money going slower:

“I make money going the speed limit, if some guys would leave those 90 [cents-per-mile] carriers they could too!”

“Cutting me back hasn’t hurt me one bit, then again I keep that left door closed as often as I can. It’s funny how you never see an empty CB or chrome shop.”

“My truck has always been speed limited, and it hasn’t hurt me one bit. I keep my eyes open, and see faster trucks I pick out pass me two and three times in a day, and stopped at the same truckstops at the end of the day. They’re burning extra fuel and stressing out for no reason.”

“My truck will do 85+, but I drive it at about 60. I get a little over 8 mpg. I’ve averaged $1.64/mi to the truck this year, for all miles. I could do 4,000 miles a week, but I choose not to. I know what it costs to run the truck, what it costs to run the house, and I can run 2500 mi/week, three weeks a month and enjoy both my job and my family.”

“Why does the 85 mph truck feel the need to pass me 4 times a night?:)”

The fleet responsibility

Jim Mickey, a 2010 HDT Truck Fleet Innovator and president of Canadian fleet Coastal Pacific Xpress, wrote in an e-mail that unfortunately, “you would not have to go too far afield to find those kinds of interviews anywhere in our industry, even today, even in the face of overwhelming evidence that the behavior and attitude should be nothing more than a quaint and amusing feature of the earlier years of trucking.”

But he points a finger at the companies that hire these drivers. “Of course for every driver with this bad attitude in the industry, there exists a driver manager or trucking company owner who hired the driver and keeps employing him despite clear evidence of a destructive attitude. It is inconceivable for the bad attitude to be manifested in more than bravado at the coffee shop were it not for the blind eye of more than a few managerial types in the process. Any company that is committed to safe and sustainable operations can move to that model literally overnight by the imposition of the appropriate policies for conduct, and the measurement tools are readily available to manage the identification of the offenders. The entire responsibility for safe and professional attitude and behavior rests with the enabler, the organization paying the truck driver to perform the service.”

And John Pope, chairman at Cargo Transporters, perhaps hit the nail on the head the best: “We do not find that our drivers have this attitude [in the article] and most are grateful for the technology which has helped them become safer and more respected on the nations highways. The key to a driver earning a better living is NOT by allowing them to speed and run illegal, it is paying them more for the hard work they do and the public and shipping community realizing the true value for the job they do.”

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In The Media: Related News

7/14/2011 – Speed, fuel economy and pay

When people ask me about trucking, I often tell them it’s not like “Smokey and the Bandit.” But if you read this article in the Wall Street Journal, you’d think the average trucker wishes they were out there speeding down the highway and outwitting the bumbling sheriff….

7/11/2011 – A reporter gets taste of driving a big rig

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Emil Estafanous, CPA, CFF, CGMA