Break Down the Breakdowns: Controlling on-road maintenance

Avatar photo
David Marvin, Tandet Management’s director of equipment services, and Kirk Tilley, president of Tandet Management and T-Fleet, stress that early planning is key.

TORONTO, Ont. —  Mike Gomes, the vice-president of maintenance for Bison Transport, summarizes his fleet’s on-road repair process in six simple words: “Truck broke. Fix truck. Send money.” It’s a joke, of course, but there’s still a ring of truth to it. Each step in the process – especially as it relates to controlling costs – makes a roadside breakdown much more difficult to manage than work in your own shop.

Despite every commitment to preventive maintenance, there will always be equipment that breaks down during a journey. Maybe it’s a shredded tire or the results of a collision. Fan belts are dropped, and ignored regen warnings lead to de-rated engines. For some reason, such issues seldom seem to happen in the middle of the day or in front of a dealership, too.

The repairs completed at roadside also carry some unique dynamics of their own.

Standard Repair Times (SRTs) don’t apply in environments like this, explains David Marvin, Tandet Management’s director of equipment services. Each case needs to be judged on its own merits.

“If I see the invoice or I’m getting the phone call, they’re going to tell me how long it’s going to take. The vendor says, ‘It’s an alternator. It’s going to take 45 minutes to change out.’ OK. That sounds fair,” he says. But there is an acceptance that tools are limited to what was loaded onto a service vehicle. Required replacement parts can be much further away than a counter adjacent to a service bay.

“Truck broke. Fix truck. Send money.” – Mike Gomes, Bison Transport

This hardly means such repairs need to be out of a maintenance manager’s control, however. The secret is to plan for such eventualities, and choose partners who can provide help when it’s needed.

“A good roadside event happens well before you ever need a roadside event. It’s all the pre-planning,” says Kirk Tilley, president of Tandet Management and T-Fleet, which provides emergency breakdown service across North America. “Do you know your route of travel? Have you pre-approved vendors? Have you negotiated rates with those vendors? Do you know their night call-out rates? Do you know all their upcharges? If it’s a towing operation, do you know their mileage charge? Do they have a hook charge? You [answer] all that kind of stuff well before you’re broken down, because when you’re broken down and you have no idea who you need to talk to, you’re at the mercy of whoever gets a hold of you.”

Choosing suppliers

Titanium Trucking Services, for example, relies on a single U.S. supplier to address trailer repairs, and leans on a truck supplier to handle 95% of power-related repairs. Tire failures are handled by a single supplier as well. But there still needs to be a network of other service providers to ensure there is support along every lane, says Greg Black, manager of fleet maintenance. “There are always some dead areas.”

T-Fleet combines a list of its own preferred vendors with those that fleets themselves have identified. Bison takes a similar approach, anchored in a software platform known as Bison Emergency Assistance Roadcall Service (BEARS). It’s populated by about 5,000 service providers – each rated with one to five stars based on the quality of service, responsiveness, and price.

It’s about more than repair capabilities, too. Bison has established working relationships with truck stops including Love’s and Flying J because of other support. “Our drivers are familiar with them,” Gomes says, referring to the added benefits of amenities like showers and restaurants.

Even drivers can be enlisted to be part of the support network, as long as they are equipped with replacement parts such as gladhand seals and bulbs, and informed how to use them.

Titanium offers financial incentives to those who complete the repairs on the road. “The faster the driver can get fixed and get going, the better it is for the E-log,” Black says, noting how the fleet offers drivers the supplies including springs and clamps to hang air lines, as well as bulbs and wire ties.

Admittedly, roadside repairs are usually taken up by drivers who have spent more years on the road. Equipment spec’s have a role to play as well.

“The equipment is becoming harder for people to access repairs,” says Black, referring to features like fuel tank skirts that can make it harder to crawl underneath. “Some of the equipment, you can’t get under to repair it.”

Processes and procedures

No matter who is selected for any work, formal triage processes ensure that nothing is overlooked.

Bison, for example, ensures that anyone answering the phones will follow a specific series of questions. Stranded drivers are first asked if they’re OK and whether emergency services are needed, and if the vehicle is secured. Then there are standard operating sheets walking step by step through basic systems to gather repair information.

BEARS is also tied into the Bison dispatch system, ensuring that everyone understands the related loads and delivery timelines. Some customers might be able to wait longer for repairs than others.

The actual steps a fleet might follow can even vary by region, from one company division to the next, Tilley says, referencing the differences in labor rates between Canada’s Oil Patch and the East Coast.

Black says the Titanium team always looks to balance the severity of a failure with potential tow costs as well. It might make more sense to have a clutch repaired on the road if a tow back to a known shop is worth half as much as the labor on the repair itself.

“It all depends on the customer’s policy. That’s a huge factor,” Tilley says, referring to differences from one fleet to the next. “They’ll limit what they want repaired on the side of the road to what they want towed in. It also depends on whether they’re loaded or not. Depends on what the load is. Depends on whether it’s dangerous goods or not. Liquid or dry. It’s so customer-dependent and on how they manage the operations of their business. Some clients don’t want anybody to touch the engine on the roadside. Others, they don’t care.”


Once a decision is made to have the work performed, a constant flow of information will be the best weapon to ensure that costs don’t spiral out of control.

This begins by providing accurate information to a service provider, Black says. That means conveying exactly how a driver described the issue, and providing the driver’s phone number and location to ensure that those behind the wheel are kept in the loop.

“On average, it takes eight points of contact to deal with a roadside event,” Tilley adds. Each step of the way, from the first call to the repair itself, involves asking for timelines and following up – whether it’s asking how long until a vehicle is dispatched, or when a repair is expected to be done. “Through all that, ‘How much? How much? How much? You didn’t give me an estimate. Can you tell me roughly what you think this is going to cost?” Then it’s a matter of issuing purchase orders for the agreed amount, and ensuring these documents match the invoices that follow.

But the way such information is shared can vary widely. One T-Fleet client communicates each piece of information electronically, with dispatchers filling out pre-formatted documents that generate emails. But 60% of the customers still prefer to receive such information over the phone.

This is especially the case when it comes to communicating with stranded drivers.

“The driver wants to know somebody is actually is concerned. They can actually tell them how frustrated they are, or they can get a sympathetic voice on the other end of the line. Our philosophy we use with everyone is that a driver wants to do their job safely and go home. Our job is to get them home,” Tilley says.

Marvin agrees: “His truck’s broke down. It’s cold. It’s dark out. He wants to know, ‘When’s that tow truck going to be here?’ I’ve seen it before where something’s happened and the driver just wants to be aware that somebody’s coming.”

Protecting warranties

Meanwhile, the careful tracking of the repair process itself will help to ensure that potential warranty claims are not sacrificed.

“We’re firm believers in purchasing extended warranties,” Gomes offers. But costs are only recovered if specific information is captured at the time of a repair. Pictures have to be taken before anything is disassembled, repairs need to be documented, and replaced parts need to be returned.

Such related capabilities can be established when first choosing vendors for the on-road repair network.

“One of the things you should do with a vendor when you’re setting yourself up, ‘Can you take pictures from the roadside if we request it? Can you hold parts if we request it? It looks like it’s a brand new truck and it looks like a warrantable item. Do you charge for that?’ Some vendors do that, some don’t,” Tilley says. There’s also the question of whether a service provider can retain a part until their told to dispose it or ship it.

The warranties to be tracked are not limited to trucks alone, either. Even the replacement parts will come with warranties, Tilley stresses. “We capture right down to the nuts and bolts. Any time something goes on, we start to track the manufacturer’s warranty on the specific part.”

Ongoing communications through the process can also help to protect against a variety of scams. Simply telling a driver what service provider is coming can protect them from another shop who rolls in, hooks up, and asks for a cash payment, for example.

Black refers to the way it can protect those in a home office from credit card scams.

“I get the calls all the time,” he says. Scammers spot a trailer number and licence plate, and call to say they have the truck in a “shop” awaiting payment on a repair. “This is happening, more rampant and more often,” Black says. It’s why Titanium tells teams to validate vehicle locations using the satellite system, and call the driver or owner-operator to ensure that repairs are actually being performed.

Dealing with an unplanned repair is tough enough without addressing a repair that was never performed in the first place.


Avatar photo

John G. Smith is Newcom Media's vice-president - editorial, and the editorial director of its trucking publications -- including Today's Trucking,, and Transport Routier. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

Have your say

This is a moderated forum. Comments will no longer be published unless they are accompanied by a first and last name and a verifiable email address. (Today's Trucking will not publish or share the email address.) Profane language and content deemed to be libelous, racist, or threatening in nature will not be published under any circumstances.