Refrigerated containers, intermodal containers, oil and gas tankers -- no matter what the cargo, trucks carry it. Trucks vary in size and weight, and the type of route you take can mean a world of difference, too. What type of trucking situation is right for you?
OTR or Regional?
Your specific duties and lifestyle can vary whether you drive a truck equipped for long haul -- also known as OTR (over the road) -- or regional routes, according to Douglas Orton, driver and contract relations manager for trucking company Schneider National.
Schneider’s OTR and regional drivers typically drive trucks pulling either 48-foot-long or 53-foot-long trailers, Orton says. In general, “truckload” freight hauling requires 28- to 53-foot trailers (a semi-trailer) that can be detached from the rest of the truck. The cab, or tractor, is “what the driver drives and lives in,” says Orton, though whether the driver lives in the cab depends on bunk area size and length of route. The trailer carries the cargo and may be refrigerated, heated or come with a pump and air compressor for bulk materials, as well as other features to meet the cargo’s needs. The type of trailer can impact your daily responsibilities.
Regional can be truckload or less-than-truckload (LTL). Truckload drivers pick up freight at a shipper and deliver to one destination. LTL drivers pick up freight, usually at a terminal, and deliver to multiple locations; then they reload at multiple customers and bring the cargo back to the terminal.
Volvo Trucks North America spokesman Jim McNamara says that if it’s a company like Yellow or Roadway or Fed-Ex that does mostly less-than-truckload business, then you may not be involved in loading or unloading the truck. But if it’s a company with mostly truckload business like Swift, Knight or JB Hunt, you may be.
McNamara says long-haul truckers also may not get involved physically with the type of cargo they haul. “Many (of these) companies do not want their drivers unloading or ‘fingerprinting’ the freight,” he says. “Lots of receivers will have dedicated staff, or lumpers, to unload or load,” although some customers may ask the drivers help.
And when you’re doing dedicated routes (going to the same customer base regularly), you may need some additional knowledge depending on the industry, McNamara adds. Dedicated routes can be correlated to regional because they imply specific local business. If you’re hauling construction materials, for example, you might need to know how to use forklifts or cranes to load or offload.
The Professional Truck Driver Institute (PTDI), part of the Truckload Carriers Association, offers certified courses on basic truck driving skills and generally uses of 48-foot and 53-foot feet trailers, says spokeswoman Nancy O’Liddy.
“The student is exposed to the different types of freight they could possibly be hauling, but they are further trained to a specific type of truck when hired by the carrier,” she adds. “The industry calls this ‘driver finishing training.’ For example, if you go to work for a refrigerated carrier, they will train you on how to haul their specific freight.”
Luis Rodriguez, a Schneider master driver, says this training typically takes about four to five weeks.
Orton adds: “We have new drivers who say, ‘I want to be a bulk driver.’ ‘I want to pull tanks.’ Or, ‘I want to drive intermodal.’ Other people may not know the difference starting off, but as they learn they get aligned with that type of work.” In general, there is plenty of opportunity for any type, he says. “You can come into the industry and find a long-term career as a driver and go in different directions. To some, it’s going from OTR to a local driver/dedicated account. We have a menu of opportunities based on your interests.”
Here are some -- though not all -- of the most common types and configurations:
Hawks cautions that if you want to haul twin or triple trailers, you must pass a written exam from the DOT. “If you pull triples, the legal weight is most commonly around 110,000 pounds total for the entire combination of trailers and tractor,” he adds. “And the turning capabilities are much more difficult as it takes much more radius to make it around a corner.”
- Straight truck: Think U-Haul.
- Tanker: This can be either a two- or three-axle tractor pulling a tank trailer with two or more axles. “The more axles the trailer has, the more weight it can carry,” says Tom Hawks, a driver/trainer with Kenco Logistic Services in Chattanooga, Tennessee. “However, all trucks can haul no more than 80,000 pounds total between the tractor and trailer combined -- unless a special permit is issued.” If you want to haul a tanker, you must pass a written exam and do a pre-trip inspection of a tanker in the presence of a law-enforcement official.
- Twin trailers: Typically a two-axle tractor pulling two "pup" trailers, measuring 28 feet in length each.
- Sleeper trucks: A two- or three-axle tractor with a sleeping compartment, usually for OTR or regional routes.
- Auto transporters: “This is just what it says -- it hauls automobiles and other vehicles, mostly used with a single axle or two-axle tractor,” says Hawks. “The turning dynamics are greatly different than other trucks, because the first unit is so much longer. In this case, the truck is attached permanently to something like 20 feet of the trailer system. So when this truck makes turns, it is easier to get into and out of a tight parking lot. However, this truck can only turn a short degree so it will not crunch the rear trailer of cars.” Hawks says drivers need special training for loading and unloading the automobiles.
- Low-boys: These are used for hauling such items as bulldozers, heavy machinery and construction equipment. “However, it can be used for most anything, as long as it does not have to be docked to unload,” says Hawks. “It is usually used best for most cargo to be driven or lifted off. Some of these types of loads can get special permits to haul much more than 80,000 pounds.” But that involves more stringent requirements, including training and license endorsement from the Department of Transportation (DOT). “Low bridges, tight turns, low-weight limit bridges, low power lines, width of roadways and bridges (and high railway crossings) have to be planned for,” cautions Hawks. “Not to mention heavily trafficked areas and times of congestion.”
- Reefers: A two- or three-axle tractor pulling a trailer with a refrigerated unit. This could carry food, produce or even hazardous materials.
- Three-axle van: A two-axle tractor pulling a pup trailer with one axle.
- Four-axle van: A two-axle tractor pulling a long trailer (up to 53 feet) with two axles.
- Five-axle van: A two-axle tractor pulling a long trailer with two axles.
- Five-axle flatbed: A two-axle tractor pulling a flatbed trailer measuring 40 feet to 53 feet. Hawks, who was named the American Trucking Associations’ 1999 National Truck Driver of the Year, notes that some flatbed trailers have split-axles. “That means the furthermost rear axle is separated from the next one by four or more feet, thus making the turning dynamics more complex,” he says.
- Triple: A two- or three-axle tractor pulling three trailers, each of which can have one or two axles as well. You will have to pass a written exam to drive these massively heavy combinations.