A Truck Driver’s Survival Guide: 5 lessons for life on the road

Jim Park
Your scribe, circa 1982

TORONTO, Ont. — I would not want to be starting out in a driving career today. With the greatest demand for drivers coming from the over-the-road sector, entry-level drivers are often tossed into the deep end and expected to fend for themselves. While some fleets are very supportive of their new hires, that approach is by no means universal.

Hiring statistics indicate that many entry-level drivers exit the industry within a year. Exit interviews suggest they were not expecting quite so significant a change to their way of life. It’s an unfortunate reality that few entry-level drivers are given the opportunity to ease into the job as I did, starting on straight trucks on daily routes before taking the wheel of a tractor-trailer. Most of the demand for drivers today comes from the longhaul sector, and that’s also the most difficult sector for many to adjust to.

I, at least, had a pretty good idea how the business worked by the time I got into the big leagues. But there was still a bunch of stuff I had to figure out on my own, some of it operational, some of it on the personal and lifestyle side. Going whole-hog into an over-the-road driving job is like nothing that has ever happened to you previously — unless you have some military experience.

Isn’t this what we all signed up for?
  1. Prepare yourself for change

If you have a spouse or a family, prepare them for what lies ahead: time away, sometimes unpredictable schedules, and swings in your paycheque. It can be difficult for a family to adapt to having one member away overnight or for extended tours of duty. Leaky taps won’t get fixed, lawns won’t get cut, hockey games and school plays will go unseen, crashed computers may stay crashed. It’s easy for some resentment to build up in these situations, and it’s likely that you’ll take some heat for it while you’re on the road and unable to do anything about it. That’s very stressful for both partners, so go into this job with eyes wide open and try to get everyone onside with what will change at home. Time away is probably the most difficult transition from civilian life for families.

Meanwhile, trucking has one of the most complex pay systems on the planet. Rarely will you see the same amount twice in a row. Mileage work varies, as will other billable items, like delays, pay for loading and unloading, etc. Then there’s real miles versus practical miles, upon which most driver pay is based. If you’re tracking miles run, your pay stub will likely reflect a different mileage. These variances can also impact statutory holiday pay, so be prepared to ask questions if your pay seems significantly less than you expected. Hourly pay, to which most non-truckers are accustomed, is rare in trucking, although some carriers are now making that transition.

Trucking’s pay system can put some strain on household budgets, too. Do not base your financial plans on the biggest cheque you see. You may come up short now and then, and that too can put stress on the relationship.

  1. Get good at backing up

Reversing is a skill you’ll need throughout your career, so the sooner you figure it out the better. My first exposure to backing came at the company I was working for when I learned to drive tractor-trailers. Getting

Unfortunately, this is more the reality.

from the road into a dock required an S-turn: first to the right (blind-side) off the street, through a gate, and then to the left into a dock. I’ll be honest, it took me days and dozens of attempts to get it right. The mistake I was making at first was turning too sharply, hard to the right, then straight for a bit and then hard to the left. It was much easier to make the maneuver in a series of gentle turns. Sometimes hard cuts are required in the real world, but in most cases the gentle turns work best.

I took opportunities to practice reversing whenever I could, starting with backing to the left, and eventually trying backing to the blind side. Those situations will arise in real life, so it’s best to be prepared before you’re confronted with a seemingly impossible situation, like backing blindside into an alley off a busy one-way street. Over time I learned how to parallel park, which is especially useful in crowded rest areas.

Whenever possible, ask a bystander to spot for you while backing, but remember, unless your spotter is also a driver, he or she will not understand the dynamics of what you are attempting to do. Do not rely on the spotter entirely. There’s much less shame in getting out to walk around the truck than explaining why you ran over something or backed into a stationary object.

  1. Do a tug test every time you start the truck

I can tell you from experience that fifth wheels are not infallible. For any number of reasons, the jaws may not lock properly (hooked up on an angle, tractor was too low to properly engage the locks, faulty mechanism, etc.). Visually checking that the jaws are locked around the kingpin is the cheapest inspection you will ever do, and it could prevent a great deal of property damage and embarrassment.

With the transmission in low gear, either leave the trailer parking brakes set or apply the trailer service brakes with the trailer valve (if you still have one) and gently pull the truck forward. The unit should not decouple. If by chance it does, you’ll be able stop before the trailer drops off the back of the tractor. Lifting a loaded trailer with the landing gear is hard work.

Mechanical failures of fifth wheels are rare, but don’t overlook the possibility that some comedian may have yanked your pin while you were in the restaurant having lunch. It happens.

Driving a truck today comes with awesome responsibility.
  1. Learn how to load the truck and always check your weight

You cannot always trust the shipper’s bill of lading. Sometimes the weight shown on the bill is only for the product and may not include the weight of the pallets, packaging, dunnage, etc. If the weight indicated on the shipping papers will put you close to your maximum gross weight, ask about the possibility of additional weight from packaging, and axle-weigh the truck after loading and at your earliest opportunity. It best to discover you are overweight when you’re close to the shipper than when caught at a scale.

Loading the truck to be axle-weight compliant is another story. The rule of thumb in an 80,000-lb. U.S. application is to distribute the load so that you have about 1,000 lb. per foot of trailer length. You’ll soon learn that rules of thumb are just guidelines. Often, when you have heavy pallets, you need to single-out several row somewhere in the middle, with two-bys in the nose and at the rear. In these situations, the cargo may need to be braced against falling over if there are no pallets in front, behind or beside a single pallet.

The best way to get good at loading is to make notes on every load, and after scaling the truck empty and loaded. You’ll soon learn where the weight goes once it’s on the trailer. Once you develop an understanding of how axle groupings take the weight (steer, drive and trailer), you’ll learn how to distribute the weight inside the trailer when you are loading. My best advice is to not take the shipper’s word at face value. Watch to see how other trailers are loaded and always scale the load as soon as possible after loading if you think you’ll be close to gross or heavy on an axle group.

  1. Leave time for the incalculable

Stuff happens. Never delay your departure until the last possible moment because there is some perverse law in nature that dictates the tighter the schedule, the more obstacles you will encounter en route.

Trip Planning 101 says to use a reasonable average trip speed when planning for travel time. For example, a 160-km trip at 80 km/h average speed will take two hours. That might work in Saskatchewan or Nebraska, but if you’re traveling through congested areas like Toronto, Montreal or Chicago, 80 km/h is probably overly optimistic. In this, the ELD age, it’s no longer just annoying when you can’t find a parking spot, it’s illegal to continue looking once your hours have run out.

In a load-and-go situation, make sure your delivery appointment is based on a reasonable average trip speed. Alert dispatchers, load planners, and shippers if you’re delayed and at risk of not arriving on time. In my day, delivery appointments were like military orders and drivers were expected to move heaven and earth to get there on time. One thing I eventually learned was not to feel responsible for missed appointments if the delays were caused by issues like loading delays, Customs problems, and traffic congestion, all of which were beyond my control.

Like it or not, there are regulations governing how long you’re allowed to drive in Canada and the U.S., and there’s no benefit to you in breaking those rules — especially in the off chance that something happens while you are driving in violation. You could end up paying for a mistake like that for the rest of your life. It’s simply not worth it.

Welcome to trucking, where what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger.



Jim Park

Jim Park was a CDL driver and owner-operator from 1978 until 1998, when he began his second career as a trucking journalist. During that career transition, he hosted an overnight radio show on a Hamilton, Ontario radio station and later went on to anchor the trucking news in SiriusXM's Road Dog Trucking channel. Jim is a regular contributor to Today's Trucking and Trucknews.com, and produces Focus On and On the Spot test drive videos.

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