How to Keep Your Pre-Trips from Breaking Down

by 2005 June

In the old days, a pre-trip inspection typically meant a kick at the tires, a quick check of the lights, possibly a yank on some belts and hoses. If the guy owned the truck, he might even check the oil. And then he’d express surprise when his rig broke down at the roadside.

Government rules and smart business practices have compelled trucking companies to get more serious about pre-trip inspections. In fact, professional drivers today practice ongoing vehicle inspections, with an enhanced inspection at the start of the shift and an end-of-trip wrap-up. Vehicle inspections are now documented in the driver’s daily report logs, creating a paper trail that not only helps drivers and carriers comply with the letter and the spirit of the laws, but also helps them track costs and work more efficiently.

But none of it matters if the driver fails to conduct a proper pre-trip inspection in the first place. Maybe he doesn’t know what to look for. Maybe he doesn’t recall what to look for. In any case, the stakes are too high for the guy not to do the job right. And there are a few simple ways to make sure your drivers are on the ball:

o Teach consistency. It doesn’t matter whether you start from the bottom and work your way up or vice-versa. Just do it the same way every time.

o Be methodical. I know a driver with 15 consecutive years of accident-free driving who credits the power of mnemonics-“alphabets” he’s developed to remind him what to check. A for air system, B for brakes, C for coolant, you get the idea. He has a 30-letter list, a 42-letter list, and so on depending on which vehicle he’s assigned to on a given day.

Here’s a short example: THE S.O.B.: Tires, Hoses, Electrical, Suspension, Oil, and Brakes. It may seem a bit convoluted, but this driver can properly inspect a Super-B train and tractor in under 30 minutes, including paperwork and using a tire pressure gauge on 30 wheels.

Another trick is to use a flashlight to trace all the components in each inspection area and to help track your progress. “Following the flashlight” has the effect of closely focusing your attention to the items being inspected. I’ve known drivers who follow an “inspection route”-from the cab to the hood to under the hood to the steering and so on. Again, be consistent: follow the same routine each time.

o Teach continuous inspection. The pre-trip shouldn’t be the driver’s only inspection of the day. Professional drivers are acutely aware of the state of their rigs, constantly watching the gauges and mirrors, listening for unusual noises, feeling the way the unit is handling on the road. Each exit from the cab prompts another walkaround. Dead time while loading or fuelling presents another opportunity to look underneath. As a result of ongoing inspections, the post-trip is usually fairly straightforward.

o Show drivers how to handle problems. Everything breaks eventually. The obvious benefit of a pre-trip inspection is to find defects before something breaks. If a driver sees a broken suspension, marks it down in the logbook, and then heads down the road, not much has been accomplished.

Defects can occur after the trip has started (common example: flat tires). Minor defects such as burnt-out lights, broken gauges, and small leaks are regular events for truckers. These can be recorded, reported to the shop, and then repaired no later than during the next scheduled maintenance.

Major defects have to be reported and dealt with before the unit can be dispatched. If this systematic approach is in place and working, then roadside breakdowns, unscheduled maintenance, and possibly accidents and injuries are all avoided.

o Know when to cut bait. This article is about more than pre-trip inspections. It’s about developing drivers who are conscientious, safe, alert, and have all the other qualities we see in truly professional drivers. Drivers who accumulate 10, 15, 20, or more consecutive years of accident-free driving have habits and attitudes and routines all intended toward getting down the road and back again in one piece. They communicate with service people and fill out logbooks religiously. These drivers have a sense of responsibility and a 24/7 commitment to safety.

These qualities are hard to teach. But drivers who can’t or won’t develop them have no business being at the wheel of a 40-ton-plus tractor-trailer.

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