The growing strategic importance of driver retention and the heightened awareness of the causes and costs of back problems among the driver force have led to a surge in seating options in recent years. Whereas a decade ago most seats available on the North American market tended to be of similar design, today the market includes more manufacturers, more designs and more options and features to choose from.
But more choice doesn’t necessarily translate into easier selection for the fleet manager wanting to ensure comfortable seating for his drivers. Comfort, afterall, can prove a very personal issue. Add to that the fact that each cab design presents a unique set of requirements and seat spec’ing quickly becomes a thorny issue.
So how can you select the best seats for your drivers? It starts with realizing that there are some things about the job of driving a truck that, no matter how good the seat, or for that matter the truck’s suspension, you can’t completely eliminate. The first is the fact that anyone who has to sit in one spot for as long as the typical long haul driver does, is unlikely to escape feeling some soreness at the end of his shift. And those with poor back muscles due to genetic problems or lack of proper exercise will likely suffer most. Second is the fact that even though comfort is a very subjective thing, seat designers must still aim their designs to what their research shows them is the “average” driver, likely someone five-foot nine to five-foot ten weighing between 180 and 200 lbs. Of course, there are adjustments such as tilt/telescoping steering columns to take care of the people that don’t fit the “average” but people at the extreme ends of the average range are less likely to be comfortable in their seats.
The next step is a firm understanding of the basics of seat design (this article will focus on air ride, the seat of choice in the heavy-truck market.)
Overall seat height should be low enough that a driver can place some weight on his feet, otherwise blood flow will be impeded higher up in the legs, which can lead to cramping.
Back height is an important option. Seats are made available with high, mid and low backs. Which is best is at least partially dependent on how drivers sit while driving. Those that like to sit well back in their seats will likely find high back seats most comfortable. It’s important to note that high back seats also provide the most neck protection in the case of a rear-end collision.
Cushions are usually made of urethane foam, a pliable material that can form and support many shapes of backends.
Seat coverings come generally in vinyl, cloth, cloth inserts and leather. Vinyl is a good spec for the dirtiest applications because it’s very easy to wash but it’s not what you want to be sitting on during a hot day. It doesn’t breathe well. Cloth inserts, which are softer, can be combined with vinyl to add comfort and provide a more attractive look. The higher-end seats will have the softest cloths. The mark of distinction is represented with the leather seat, an option with top-level interiors. It’s a material that can be both rugged and comfortable, provided you spec the best grades of leather which breathe better than plasticized and other lower-cost grades of leather.
Options to look for include lumbar adjustment, which is comprised of supports built into the lower, middle or upper portion of the cushion; thigh supports, which allow drivers to raise or lower their legs; bolsters, which are placed on the sides of the seat to provide lateral support and make it easier for heavier-set people to make the seat feel wider; fold-down and padded arm rests; and a tilting or reclining seat back.
Just as important as understanding the different options available is taking a close look at how the chair is made.Go beyond its looks and check out its guts: the suspension mechanism, the quality of the seat coverings, the accessibility and ease of use of the controls. There can be many adjustments available with the deluxe models, and it’s important that their design is simple enough to remember and easy enough to use for drivers to get the most out of them.
Getting your drivers involved in the spec’ing process is a smart idea. Road testing is also critical. Some seats will look great in the sales brochure and even feel great in the showroom but the design of each truck cab presents a unique set of requirements. So unless you spend a few hours in the seat in an actual application in a truck, you won’t have an accurate idea of how that seat will perform in day-to-day service.