One of the first things you will notice once you begin driving is how different the truck feels with a load in the trailer. When you’re in school, most schools use empty trailers and have the trailer axles set in one location. Now that you’re in training you will find out how shifting, braking, turning and overall handling of the truck varies with different weights or types of loads. As a professional truck driver, it’s your responsibility to know how to deal with all the variations.
Heavy Loads And Upgrades
You will find out immediately that shifting is much different than with an empty trailer. Because of the weight, you will lose speed much quicker between gears, thus, you will need to shift quicker, especially when going uphill. One of the biggest problems I had with trainees was getting them out of the habit of using the timing method the school taught them when it came to shifting. That system is all well and good with an empty trailer on flat land but once you start hauling freight it won’t work all the time.
Learning how to float gears, shifting without the use of the clutch, will speed the process up but you can still shift quickly while using the clutch. It is vital to speed shift up a hill because once you miss a gear you will probably find yourself coming to a stop. You definitely don’t want to do this, especially on the right of way. If you believe that you are going to have to stop to get it back into gear get to the shoulder fast. Don’t even debate whether you should get over or not, just do it.
If you do end off stopping on an upgrade it can be tricky getting rolling again. Once you get rolling, stay on the shoulder until you pick up enough speed in case you find yourself missing a gear again. Once you get up to the speed you want, then move out onto the right of way. Never, never pull out on the right of way from a dead stop.
I had a truck do that to me when I was stuck in the right lane and was about 75 yards from where he was. So here I am doing 65 MPH and he pulls out in front of me doing less than 10 MPH. I was fortunate enough to be expecting his stunt and was already slowing down by the time he pulled out but it still ended off being a lot closer to being a bad situation than I like. This is a perilous move. Do not do it, ever!
If you shift at the right time you will do it without jerking the truck. It should be a nice, smooth transition from one gear to the next. Learn where the low RPM point is to begin your upshift and don’t rev the engine too much or it’ll be hard to get into gear. Of course, the lower you let your RPM’s drop the more you’ll need to rev so ideally you want it at a place where a tap of the pedal is all you’ll need to do.
This was another hard thing to get my trainees to do correctly. They would tend to rev the engine way too high. Then, when they would grind the gear, they would rev it again and so on. This was when they would have to pull onto the shoulder because they couldn’t get into gear. You only need to tap the pedal enough to get the RPM’s up to where they need to be for a smooth shift, then shift….quickly.
Learn how to shift quickly from day one. Don’t wait till you’re on a hill. Ask your trainer where the ideal low RPM point is. Most of my trucks were 1200 RPM.
Be consistent and listen to how the engine sounds and soon you’ll be able to do it by sound rather than having to look at the dashboard. It’ll make things easier.
Heavy Loads And Downgrades
This is another important thing to learn. At first, it can be difficult because you will be unfamiliar with all the roads you’ll be traveling on. Pay attention to the roads, especially hilly roads. The reason for this, especially when getting ready to go down a hill, is that, ideally, you want to be in a gear you need to go down a hill before you start your descent so you won’t need to shift while on the hill. You want to reduce the need for using your brakes as much as possible.
A couple things to take into account are how steep the grade is and how long it is. If you can’t see the bottom, or there is a sign telling you it’s a long grade, being in the right gear is important before you start down. If it’s a short hill that you can see the bottom, the steepness of the hill doesn’t matter as much because you won’t be using the brake that much on the way down.
All trucks have engine brakes so, of course, you’ll want that turned on.
Ideally, you want the gear to be set in a place where the engine brake will slow your truck down while going down the hill and you’ll have to release it to let the speed build back up. This is possible even on the steepest grades with the heaviest loads. I’ve been down all the mountains in the west with loads over 40,000 lbs without ever touching the brakes. Even though it results in other drivers getting annoyed at you because you will probably be the slowest vehicle on the hill, it’s still a good way to do it. I didn’t care what others thought. I just concerned myself with my own vehicle.
If you can’t get into the ideal gear, or don’t want to do it that way, the best way to go is to let your speed build up to somewhere around 5 MPH over the posted speed, hit the brakes to slow the truck down to about 5 MPH below the posted speed, then let go of the brake until it’s 5 MPH over again and just keep doing that all the way down. Do not attempt to ride the brake all the way. I had a trainee do that and it wasn’t long before we had smoke coming out of the brakes and lost the use of the brakes. There is no scarier feeling than stepping on the brake pedal and nothing happens.
If you feel the brakes starting to get spongy and/or see smoke coming from your brakes, pull over and stop as soon as possible. The next level will be no brakes at all and you don’t want to get to that point. If you do lose your brakes look for a runaway truck ramp.
Obviously, different load weights will determine which gear you’ll want. With most of the mountains in the east, along the interstate, you will never need to go lower than eighth gear. Out west, in the big hills, you may need to drop into seventh gear and occasionally sixth gear if you don’t want to use the brakes at all. Figure out a system that is best for you.
There are a few places where you will need to stop at the top for a brake check before starting down the hill. These places are all well marked with signs so you know when it’s required by law. These are long, steep, and curvy hills so make sure you obey the speed limit.
Most mountain grades along the interstate are less than 7%. By law, interstate grades are not to be more than 6% unless the posted speed limit is less than 60 MPH. There are some spots that are a bit more but not for long stretches. However, once you venture off the interstates there is no limit on the grades. You will really need to know what you’re doing. Some grades can be 8 or 9%. I never ran across any that were more than 9% but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.
Remember this saying. You can go down a mountain too slow an infinite number of times but you can go down too fast only once.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen trucks rolled over on curves. There really is no excuse for this if you’re paying attention to what you’re doing. One of the things I am most surprised about to this day is how many trucks I had seen on their sides on turns and curves. To me, slowing down for a curve is common sense, even in a car, but it’s apparent some people don’t use theirs or are lacking in that department.
You can roll a truck even with an empty trailer if you go fast enough.
You’re not in a car anymore. Trucks and trailers have a high center of gravity. The type of load you’re carrying, how it’s loaded, and weight all play into handling curves correctly.
Many times you will pick up a pre-loaded trailer that has been sealed. These are time-saving loads as far as picking them up, and I liked them, but the one drawback is that you’re unable to see how the trailer is loaded and how secure the load is.
Your bill of lading will tell you what you’re hauling so you should get a pretty good idea how it’s loaded. However, once you start your trip, for the first few miles, test the load on turns and curves to get a better idea of how the trailer is loaded. The riskier loads are things like paper or liquids.
Huge rolls of paper are loaded on end and they weigh anywhere from 2500 – 5000 lbs each. Looking at them you would think there is no way they can fall over or slide. Don’t believe that. More than one truck has flipped from hitting a curve too fast and a roll or two of paper slid and hit the side of the trailer.
Liquids can be a lot of fun….not. The loads I despised were the big, square plastic containers that come in metal cages. They were not filled all the way to the top and you can feel the trailer lean on even the slightest of curves. When stopping and starting you could feel the liquid sloshing back and forth giving you a jerky stop. See the image below right for a picture of these containers.
Other liquids such as beer are better at not sloshing, however, the way some places stack the product can cause the product to shift. I know of one shipper who would stack the product along the outer part of the pallet leaving a big opening in the middle. Needless to say, many times I had to restack those things at the receiver because many of the pallets had busted loose and the product was all over the trailer. This was a liquid product but it can happen with solid products as well if not loaded correctly.
Another situation I ran into once was picking up huge slabs of some kind of metal, I believe iron, in N.J. That’s all it was. There were four loaded down the middle of the trailer but they weighed 42,000 lbs combined. They did not brace them at all, even though I asked several times for them to do so.
It didn’t take long for all four of them to slide to the side of the trailer causing the trailer to lean severely to one side. I did contact my company and they told me to run with it, which I wasn’t happy about, but I just had to crawl on left-hand curves since the trailer was tilting to the right. I made it to the receiver W.V. but I told the company I would never pick up at that shipper again and I never did.
Once, I picked up an engine from a place that didn’t normally ship engines. It was one engine on a pallet which was placed in the middle of the trailer. They braced it with wooden blocks nailed to the floor but the weight of the engine managed to break one of the braces and it slid to the side of the trailer causing the trailer to tilt. That time I was only a few miles from the shipper so I went back and we worked on bracing it much better using a combination of wooden blocks, long 2×4’s, straps, load locks, and about anything else we could find.
So, even with a “secured” load, you can’t be sure it will hold and a load can shift on you.
A shifting load is the main cause of trucks flipping so always keep that in mind when you have freight that doesn’t fill the entire width of the trailer.
Top heavy loads are also perilous because the center of gravity, which was already high to begin with, is now higher. Even light loads that are loaded top heavy will flip you a lot easier than normal.
I’m sure you know that mountain roads can be extremely curvy and for some reason, many seem to be located right at the bottom of a hill. Maybe it’s a planned thing to mess with truck drivers. There will be signs alerting you to upcoming curves so make sure you pay attention to all signs.
Keep all these possibilities in mind when driving. A huge majority of the time there won’t be any problems but don’t allow that to get you to think it could never happen. All it takes is one time and you’ll find yourself on your side, jobless, and possibly injured or worse.
Anyway, the point of all of this is to make sure you realize the necessity of being careful, even over-careful.
When going down hills, don’t let anyone intimidate you into going faster than you feel comfortable with. It’s your job and life at risk.
When going up hills, get off the roadway if you have even the slightest thought you may not be able to shift in time. Don’t wait until you’re out of gear to attempt to move onto the shoulder because you may not make it.
When picking up loads you can’t check visually, test the load early in the trip, starting your curves or turns slowly at first then gradually building up speed on the following turns or curves you come to. Normally, the speed signs at curves will be fine. I know they say those aren’t intended to be truck speeds but I never ran across a curve where the posted speed was too fast for me. However, if you have a sloshy liquid load those speeds could very well be too fast, even if it says something like “recommended truck speed”.
Do not assume that because a truck in front of you can do something you will be able to do it also. First of all, you have no idea what, if any, kind of freight they are hauling. Only be concerned about what you know about your truck and the freight you have.
Pay attention to the roads you travel so next time you will know how to deal with any hills, curves or other conditions ahead of time.
Make sure you have your trainer allow you to practice these things while you’re with them. Some trainers are reluctant but if your trainer won’t allow you to do these things ask for another trainer. It’s much better to learn when someone is there to help than when you’re alone.
In my next article, I will talk about something that may not seem important, but it is. Common courtesy on the roadways.
More posts by Dennis