Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Whole 'Nuther World

A lot of professions have their own little worlds where there is common language, habits and so on. Everyone knows about truckers and their lives on the road, but the people who drive pilot cars, AKA escort vehicles, are mostly ignored. They spend their lives "on the road" as much as any trucker.

I've mentioned them before and how that when our loads exceed certain sizes in certain states that we require an escort to move. I know you've all seen 'em headed at ya, in front of a big load, flashing yellow lights, flags and signs letting you know you are about to meet something larger than normal. I can tell you their jobs are more involved than just driving in front or behind a trucker with an oversize load.

They have to be certified, and are often inspected at ports of entry. When a procession of escort vehicles and a large load enter a port, they are all subject to being checked out. Some of the things they must have are a working CB radio, two extra portable CB radios (in case the trucker's and their radio crap out), a stop sign, hazard pylons, safety reflective vests or clothing, and much more. If they get their creds from a Utah certified trainer, then most states recognize them as pilot car operators.

I've said we "live on the fog line" before. That is the white line on the right edge of the road. The next time you are cruising down your fave boulevard, look at some of the things we see as hazards that are close to the road. Mailboxes, road signs, trees, bridge abutments, guard rails, reflectors, traffic at intersections - all of these things are something I don't want to hit. A good pilot car driver will keep me informed - "Got a dead skunk in your left wheel track - itchy four wheeler in the right pocket, bumblebee about a foot off the fog line coming up and no traffic, after that a skinny bridge." Translated - there is a dead skunk in your left wheel track that you'll probably want to dodge, there is a car on the right side at the next intersection that looks like it wants to go even though you are coming, there is a yellow and black striped reflector about a foot from the white line that you'll probably hit if you don't take part of the oncoming lane, and there is a bridge coming up that you will have to go down the center to keep from hitting the abutments.  If traffic is coming, I'll either have to hope I beat them across (no one ever stops if I'm already part of the way across even if it's obvious they won't fit), or stop or slow down to let them by. If traffic is bad enough, they'll get across the bridge, stop, get out with their reflective vest and stop sign to stop traffic so I can get across.

When we are in curvy hilly country, they'll get out ahead a bit so they can call back to let us know about oncoming traffic as well. "You'll be meeting an eighteen, a six wheeler pulling a trailer, and a four wheeler in the curve" means I'll have to keep way over in that curve to keep from crossing over and hitting an eighteen wheeled semi, a dually pulling a trailer, and a car.

These are all examples of two lane escorting - generally, we only use one pilot car, and on two lane roads, they are required to be in front. On four lane (or more), they travel behind us. Most of the time, we cannot see behind at all, so they act as blockers and our eyes to the rear. We can generally see far enough ahead to give them warning that we need to change lanes or whatever - if a car is parked on the shoulder, often we'll have to take both lanes to keep from rubbing them out. Or, we'll see a "skinny" bridge where the bridge abutments are hard against the fog line, so we'll need the center. Or we'll need to pass something running slower. This can get tricky, because if you'll notice, the shoulders on interstates to the left are far smaller than the right, plus most bridges and guard rails are a lot closer to the yellow line. If I'm passing something and come up on a narrow rail or bridge, I'll have to back out and make room. It's my responsibility - just about any sort of encounter is automatically legally my fault no matter the circumstance.

The pickup pictured above would be my choice as an escort vehicle - it has a large cab with plenty of room, a grill guard for mounting a front sign, flags and a high pole, a headache rack for flags, a sign and usually a CB antenna mount, and a light bar. Some states require a sign at the top of the vehicle, and some require signs at the front and rear. If you're set up with the large overhead sign and go into a state requiring front and rear signs, you might be spending some time putting them on at a port or if an inspector pulls the convoy over.

I also just mentioned another tool - the high pole.

Here are three minivans set up for high pole work. When a load reaches a certain height - again, this varies by state, a pole car is required. The pole has to be set a few inches higher than the load, so that if it hits something, the high pole driver can warn the trucker that they did hit the obstruction, and they can get stopped in time to keep from hitting whatever they "ticked." So, often times you'll see an escort vehicle with a pole quite a bit ahead of the load, with perhaps another escort behind on an interstate. They have to stay in radio range, but they need to be far enough ahead to give the trucker some lead time.

On some of the superloads - which are really large and really heavy loads - the trailers have rear steering to help get around corners. Normal semi length is around seventy five feet or less, but some of these things are easily a hundred feet long overall. Many are longer yet - with a pulling tractor and several pushers. At any rate, some of the rear steerers are radio controlled, so the rear pilot car operator can run it from their vehicle. The law has been interpreted that they are required to have CDLs - since they are "driving" that truck.

So, it's not as easy as it might look or sound at first. It's not physically demanding work other than to endure driving for long hours with an iron bladder. There are a lot of operators who have or could get handicapped parking tags - even though it is skilled work, it's all done with a car or pickup with a CB and a good GPS unit. I generally copy my permits to give to them so they'll have the route. If I can't, we'll get together and they'll take notes.

They don't have to fill out logbooks, either. On a several day trip - their hours are governed by curfew and daylight regulations just like ours, so we might not get very far during the day. They all have minimum charges, and so much a mile. Plus, overnight means a motel, so there are charges there as well. Some companies that move oversize and hire pilot cars refuse to pay motel bills, which I think is just wrong. We pay whatever it costs, period. A lot of the operators get their loads through brokers, who only allow so much a night for motels. One bunch of guys we had escort us were only allowed thirty bucks a night by their broker. They shared rooms in some flea bag places and still came out behind - but, if they were escorting one of the skinflint haulers, they wouldn't have been getting paid at all, so the broker was at least covering some of their expense. Of course, escorting for us -we cover those expenses if we get receipts. Many use minivans because they can put a sleeping bag in the back and avoid the motel expense completely - taking showers in truck stops. I had one escort who used a Honda Civic with the passenger seat removed so he had room for his sleeping bag.

After they've dropped us off, then it's time to haul hiney. That's when not having a log book is a good thing for them, because maybe they've got another load somewhere a long way to go and a short time to get there, or perhaps they just want to get home. Most are pretty well networked - we use a pilot car service that has three generations of family employed, and they know a bunch of other independents that they'll call upon to help out. That works in reverse as well - if their buddies find something they can't handle alone, they'll get the call as well. Most are independent contractors who may book their own loads or get them from the brokers. Of course, there is rate cutting and el cheapo brokers, just like trucking.

How do we find these people? With the "blue" book:
I've got one in my traveling library. It contains a listing of most of the important regulations for each state - what widths and heights require pilot cars, size of flags and signs, hours (what their definition of sunrise and sunset are, plus curfews) and days of operation (holidays and weekends), lighting requirements (whether we have to use our yellow beacon lights or not), pilot car requirements and so on. There is always a sunrise/sunset table for a major city in each state section, plus ads for pilot cars in that state. It's a very handy reference book - you can't get all that info online. I can get a lot better data on sunrise and sunset from my Weatherbug app on my phone, but a few years ago? Not so much. This was the definitive source, and still is for most things oversize. The pilot car operators all carry a dog eared copy close at hand as well.

We have our own fleet of pilot vehicles in house. Our drivers are mostly semi retired, but want to stay busy. We've got a fleet of extended cab pickups with brush guards, high poles and headache racks with lights and signs, plus a big tool box for all their stuff. So, most of our "escort loads" leave the yard with our own escorts. We hire quite a few because a lot of our loads can leave our yard without a pilot car, but when we get to another state or certain roads in other states, we need that pilot vehicle. Or, we'll leave the yard with one pilot car, but we'll need another for front and rear in another state.

So, when you see a car or pickup with yellow lights running with an oversize load, you'll know a bit more about their lives now.


drjim said...

I *always* give them (and you guys!) wide berth.
The biggest truck and pilot convoy I ever saw was several loooong flatbeds and 4 or 5 pilots pulling a load of wind turbine blades out of Long beach Harbor.
No idea where they were going, but, man, those suckers had to be 2 or 3 times as long as any other semi I've _ever_ seen!
Keep the shiny side up, and the greasy side down!

dennisranch said...

Great post! Never knew all this stuff. Yeah, when I see one of you guys, I get over as far as possible. I meet a guy a while back and I just pulled over as far as i could, and we had snow. As the guy went by he was going real slow giving me the peace sign. I thought that was funny until I saw he was saying something and read his lips, there was another one coming also. Cool. Good info on snowy roads and a hill! Every job is interesting to me.

ashley matalavage said...

Those minivans belong to my boyfriends company. I am also NY certified. We see lots of impatient motorists on the road. Some will attempt to go around us when we need to stop traffic for a minute or two. If they argue with me I tell them to go argue with the troopers..AND SOME ACTUALLY DO!

ashley matalavage said...

Those minivans belong to my boyfriends company. I am also NY certified. We see lots of impatient motorists on the road. Some will attempt to go around us when we need to stop traffic for a minute or two. If they argue with me I tell them to go argue with the troopers..AND SOME ACTUALLY DO!

Jeffro said...

Morons! Found everywhere.....

Thanks for stopping by and commenting, ashley!