SnowTime17 Photo: VDOT

Trucking lessons from Winter Storm Grayson

Cold and snow don’t just delay shipment arrivals; they affect diesel fuel, diesel exhaust fluid, fifth wheels, and other truck components.

Roaring up from the Gulf of Mexico, Winter Storm Grayson affected a wide swath of states along the Eastern Seaboard – shutting down airports and highways while inundating cities and towns with heavy amounts of snow and frigid temperatures.

Transportation experts noted that truckers should have begun prepping for the possibility of such weather events back in September and October as part of an annual and comprehensive winter preparation plan.

Barring that, there are lessons truckers should take away from Winter Storm Grayson that will help them be better prepared for similar events in the future.

Bill Dawson, vice president of maintenance operations & engineering for Ryder System, notes his company created a “winter preparedness hub” several years ago – https://ryder.com/winterdriving -- to provide a one-stop-shop of tip sheets, check lists, videos, and weather alerts drivers and fleets alike can tap into.

He firmly believes truckers large and small need to start getting ready for winter and the potential for major storms like Grayson in September and October on a number of fronts.

“Make sure you have fuel that contains additives to keep it from gelling; treat storage tanks too,” Dawson stressed. “If you don’t, you’ll get into a situation like this week with temps dropping below freezing in Atlanta, GA, and in Florida.”

He said there is nothing worse than coming out after zero degree overnight temperatures and the truck won’t start due to gelled fuel. “It will take a lot to get it running again – clearing gelled lines and replacing [fuel] filters. That will take a truck out of service for a couple of hours or a whole day,” Dawson noted. “The revenue lost from that is very destructive.”

He stressed that the only way to prepare for winter operation to take several steps of precaution before each trip.

“Before you go out, do the basics you are supposed to do anyway: make sure your tires in good shape, that their inflation is right, that you have emergency supplies in your truck. Never take that for granted. It seems each year have to relearn these lessons every year.”

Roger Whitworth, a transportation specialist for risk control at insurance giant Travelers, added many truckers are now accustomed to using all-season radial tires. However, such tires are “a compromise” between traction and fuel economy. “You really need winter tires on the drive axles for the best traction,” he said.

“Chains are important, too. And you need to chain up all tires – even the trailer tires – and you need to have gloves to do it. You can’t chain up bare-handed,” he stressed. “Because when you go downhill, the trailer will ‘push’ the truck – you need an anchor back there. Because that’s the fastest way get into jackknife situation, when the trailer is sliding and ‘pushing’ your truck.”

Whitworth – who drove tractor-trailers for 18 years before moving into fleet management and then the insurance business – noted that special attention needs to be paid to diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) tanks and fifth wheels during winter storms like Grayson.

“You have to worry about DEF because it has a high concentration of water – and if it freezes, the truck will go into shutdown mode and stall out,” he explained.

That’s why it can be prudent to idle a truck’s engine every five to 10 minutes each hour when stuck at a truck stop or rest area in a storm. “That will operate the heaters on board for the DEF tanks,” he said.

Whitworth also pointed out that fifth wheel lubricants can thicken in cold weather, which can interfere with trailer king-pin latching, trailer maneuvering, etc. Snow buildup can cause the same problems, he said, so keeping the fifth wheel clear of snow and using synthetic lubricants can solve those issues.

And like Ryder’s Dawson, Whitworth emphasized the importance of stocking a winter driving survival kit in the truck cab every time a driver heads out on the road in cold weather.

“The top item is a good flashlight for you can pull into a truck stop during a storm and discover there is a power outage or no overhead lighting,” he said. “You also need a good flashlight to help when you chain up.”

Extra clothing is critical because by the time you complete any outside work like chaining up tires, you’re clothing will be are wet. “As we get older, remember to stock up on any prescription medications you are taking and make sure you bring an extra charger for your cell phone,” Whitworth noted.

Ryder’s Dawson also stressed that usually the best thing to do during a winter storm is not to head out into it – and to ensure the driver is empowered to be the “captain of the ship” to make such decisions.

“Let the professional truck driver make the decision – if they feel it is unsafe, don’t drive,” he said “An accident, even a minor one, is not productive. It is the only policy to follow in my estimation. And it is easy talk ‘captain of ship’ in summer when you are not worried about a late load much; it’s much more challenging like this when you have two weeks of icy cold and are trying to work around customer demands.”

Whitworth added that communication with shippers and receivers is doubly vital in bad weather situations like the one brought on by Grayson.

“Frequent communication ensures there is less angst for customer and the driver so everyone knows what is going on. It comes down to timely delivery versus safe delivery,” he said. “There’s also nothing worse than sending out a driver with a load to a grocery store only to find the store is closed.”

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