Geography of the job: Preparation is key to a smooth ride on dangerous terrain

Geography of the job: Preparation is key to a smooth ride on dangerous terrain

Many drivers know something about geography. They get a daily lesson as they travel across the country. Most of them learn quickly that the terrain they are driving through can have a huge impact on their day — and their safety.

Mountain driving, for example, can present hard climbs, followed by steep downhill grades that can test the truck’s ability to slow and stop. But grades aren’t the only danger.

Mountain weather can change from mile to mile as altitude changes. For example, it’s not unusual to begin climbing a mountain with clear visibility only to ascend into a layer of fog, if the hill is high enough, and then break into clear weather above the cloud.

Temperature can be critical in mountain driving, as anyone who has driven the major passes through the Rocky Mountains can attest. Rain at the bottom of the grade can turn to snow at the top as the temperature drops. A wet road can quickly turn into treacherous black ice.

Another feature of mountain driving is that it can impact the distance traveled. Drivers often complain that the trip miles they drive don’t often match dispatched miles. The old adage that the shortest distance between two point is a straight line may be true, but it’s hard to find straight lines on a mountain road. There are plenty of curves and switchbacks, plus hills and valleys, all adding to the number of revolutions a wheel makes for each mile of distance gained.

Experienced drivers know to expect a few more miles and some extra driving time in mountainous terrain.

Other types of terrain present their own problems. A trip across the plains can bring winds high enough to blow empty or lightly loaded trucks off the road or turn them over. Long, nearly straight stretches of road can induce boredom and fatigue.

In winter, wind can result in snow drifts that can accumulate at alarming rates, even when the sky is clear. Snowstorms can turn into blizzards quickly as they are pushed by winds that have traveled hundreds of miles. Even a light snow can result in icy conditions as vehicles pack flakes onto road surfaces.

Dirt and dust or plant debris from farm fields can blow across roads, reducing visibility and potentially causing a loss of traction.

Even the sun can be a problem on flat terrain. Snow-covered fields reflect the sunlight, reducing visibility and contributing to eye fatigue.

Wind can impact fuel mileage, too. Driving into a headwind can severely increase your truck’s fuel consumption, while driving with a tailwind improves fuel economy.

Many drivers are unprepared for changes in altitude encountered when crossing the “flat” plains. A trip from Chicago to Denver, for example, doesn’t involve driving through mountains — but the elevation still rises nearly 4,800 feet, or 9/10 of a mile.

Farther to the south, the change in elevation is more visible as drivers travel across the Llano Estacado, a visible cliff-like barrier between the high plains to the west and the lowlands farther east.

Near the coast, water can become an issue, especially during inclement weather. The hurricane season, June through November each year, can bring severe storms that include storm surges that raise sea levels. Even smaller storms can dump torrents of rain after picking up water over the ocean or the Gulf of Mexico.

After the storms pass, there may still be damage to roads and bridges or storm debris such as downed trees that impede travel.

No matter what geographic conditions you’ll face, it’s wise to be prepared for anything. Keeping fuel tanks topped off in cold weather helps reduce water condensation in the tank and also ensures there will be enough fuel to keep the engine — and the heater — running if you become stranded. Every winter, roads are shut down due to snowstorms, often with vehicles stuck between exits, unable to proceed.

It’s also important to keep a bottle or two of fuel treatment in your rig, along with a couple of spare fuel filters. Diesel purchased in a warmer location may not be blended for the conditions you’re driving into. A fuel filter that’s plugged up with gelled fuel will stop an engine cold. Some fuel treatments will dissolve the gelled fuel when poured into the filter, and also treat the fuel in the tank.

Condensation in brake lines can block air flow. In the old days, drivers carried bottles of air-line antifreeze, primarily alcohol, and poured it into brake lines to dissolve ice crystals and get the air flowing. Modern trucks, however, contain plastic valves and other parts that can be harmed by the use of alcohol.

Luckily, most trucks are now equipped with air dryers that remove condensation from air lines. These need occasional service, however, as they use a desiccant to absorb water. Over time, the desiccant loses its ability to work and must be replaced.

Grease is important too — it fills voids where critical parts rub together and pushes dirt and pollutants out.

It’s a good idea to get your truck serviced, including changing the air dryer desiccant and adding fresh grease, before winter weather arrives. Buying extra windshield solvent is a good idea, too, but look for quality products that protect to lower temperatures.

Finally, it’s also important to prepare yourself for bad weather. You could be stuck on the side of the road without heat, or you could have to be outside to work on the truck or to walk for help. Always pack a jacket, hat and cold-weather gloves, even if you aren’t expecting cold weather. A sleeping bag could be a lifesaver if you’re stuck for a while.

Sunglasses are a must, too. Tinted windows and visors help, but there are times when sunglasses are needed.

Every driver should have an emergency food supply that can provide enough nutrition for a day or two. Protein and fitness bars are easy to find and don’t take much space. Some bottled water is a good idea, too, since dehydration is a common cold-weather problem.

Driving conditions, including weather, often change with the local geography. It’s wise to prepare for any conditions.

Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.
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