Thursday, July 30, 2015

#TBT – Ode to Rufus Sideswipe

(Editor’s note: It’s “Throwback Thursday” and we’re digging into the Land Line digital archive to bring you a 2009 column from Editor-in-Chief Sandi Soendker. Since its inception, our blog has been not only the spot for hard-hitting analysis and opining, but also a place where we have a little fun, like this exchange between columnists Dave Sweetman and Bill Hudgins’ fictional alter ego, Rufus Sideswipe.)

Truck writers are a nutty bunch. I got an email today from Rufus Sideswipe, the gearjammin’ imaginary pal of Land Line columnist Bill Hudgins. This email was a copy of a note sent to another Land Line columnist, Dave Sweetman.
Illustration by Mo Paul

Rufus, it seems, read Sweetman’s column in the October 2009 Land Line and liked it a lot. If you haven’t read it, it’s called “Blue Highways,” and I agree it’s one of Sweetman’s best. Good enough to bring a fictional character like Rufus “to life,” I guess.

Allow me to share this exchange. The fictional Rufus writes to Dave:

That was one fine journey back down the backroads in Land Line. That other writer fella, Bill Hudgins, what quotes me all the time – he says he read “Blue Highways” and “Travels With Charley” and “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and did some roaming, too. But then he got sidetracked and stuck in one place with that Wilma of his. Thanks for the trip! – RS

Now considering that Bill wrote this in the guise of Rufus, I really like the “Wilma” touch – seeing as how Bill’s wife is WILDA, not Wilma.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Total Recall

45 million.

That’s the number of vehicles recalled this year for just two separate events. Approximately 34 million vehicles were recalled for the Takata airbag defect back in May, and more than 11 million Fiat Chrysler vehicles were found to have one of several defects just recently. That’s nearly 50 million vehicles recalled in just a few months.

Last Thursday I wrote about the SPY Car Act, which is a legislative attempt to protect our cars from hackers. The very next day, more than 1 million Chryslers were recalled for software that was vulnerable to hacking.

You can head over to every day and see if there have been any new recalls since the day before. That page is rarely blank. On the day of this writing, there are four new recalls since the day before that affect more than 160,000 vehicles. 

Last April, the DOT Inspector General testified before Congress that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had made improvements in detecting defects. About a month ago I wrote about an audit report from the Office of Inspector General that basically called NHTSA incompetent.

Bottom line: We have a problem here. A very dangerous, sometimes fatal, problem.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The FMCSA, Bank Robbery Division

The FMCSA is forging boldly ahead to tie CSA scores into carrier fitness ratings and making the ratings public to shippers and brokers.

The FMCSA is tough. Those CSA scores reflect any accident at all – whether you caused it or were just waiting at a traffic light and got rolled over by a rogue National Guard tank on its way to McDonald’s. “Independent research has demonstrated that a motor carrier’s involvement in a crash, regardless of their role in the crash, is a strong indicator of their future crash risk,” the FMCSA explains. And that’s that.

Hey wait a minute. Maybe we should put a tough outfit like the FMCSA in charge of reducing bank robberies. We might hear a phone conversation like this:

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Peterbilt royalty

Editor’s note: It’s “Throwback Thursday” and we’re diving back into Land Line’s digital archive to bring you a June 2011 piece from former columnist Bob Martin, aka “Cowpoke.” Longtime readers of the magazine may recall his standing column “Spitballin’ with Cowpoke.” He passed away from cancer later that year. As you can see, he was a huge fan of Peterbilt trucks.

Peterbilt royalty? Who me? Hardly. But I did try to start a rumor once that I was T.A. “Al” Peterman’s grandson. Peterman was a successful logger who bought out Fageol Trucks in 1938 and founded Peterbilt Motors in 1939.

I often feel like Peterbilt “royalty.” That’s probably because of the various honors and the recognition awarded to my truck and us by Peterbilt.

My wife Geri and I were featured in their magazine First Class in 1996. Some 12 years later we were featured in the “379: End of an Era” special edition with the same truck. With all those team efforts and well-heeled big rides out there we got the spotlight. I’m not kidding myself, we were just a pair of “oval-heads” in the right spot at the right time.

Some of the twists and turns that got us there are worth rambling about.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Blago still making license plates, for the time being

A federal appeals court overturned five of the 18 convictions levied against former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, but the court’s ruling isn’t likely to spring him from his prison cell anytime soon.

As you may recall, Blagojevich, the Democrats’ answer to Donald Trump’s hair, was sentenced to 14 years in prison back in 2011. He was convicted of the aforementioned 18 counts of corruption relating to separate schemes to solicit campaign contributions in exchange for toll road contracts and for auctioning off President Obamas former seat in the U.S. Senate.

The five overturned convictions all stem from Blago’s pay-to-play schemes for the vacant Senate seat, something the then-governor defended as just some old-fashioned, backroom politickin’. He’s been in a Colorado prison since March 2012.

The appeals court ruling on Tuesday basically comes down to an improper instruction to the jury, requiring them to treat “all proposals alike” when it came to Blagojevich’s schemes. That means prosecutors can either retry the case completely or, more likely, agree to let the charges drop, which would necessitate a resentencing.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How to stay safe when the heat’s got you beat

(Editor’s Note: Researchers in England have released a new study that suggests even mild dehydration while driving has the same effects as drunk driving.  Land Line staff writer Tyson Fisher has the details here.)

It’s the dog days of summer, and you find yourself stuck in place where you can’t idle. Maybe it’s a loading dock where you’re waiting for a hazmat load, or maybe a high-security facility where visitors aren’t allowed to leave their cabs. Temperatures outside are pushing triple-digits, but behind all that glass in the cab the air temperature is getting even hotter. How long can you just sit there sweating before an inconvenience becomes a serious risk to your health?

The National Weather Service has issued heat advisories throughout the southern and eastern U.S., with heat index values as high as 100 to 110 degrees. Health experts agree that heat illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke should not be taken lightly. As the temperatures rise, the amount of exposure you can take to extreme heat lessens. Susceptibility to heat-related illness can also be increased by factors such as age, obesity and certain medications.

If the above scenario sounds a little far-fetched, consider the recent plight of a tanker truck driver who suffered a heatstroke and had to be hospitalized for days. He had parked his rig at a loading area of a chemical plant in Virginia, where the temperatures outside were 98 degrees. The customer has a strict “no-idle” policy, due to the hazardous materials that were being loaded into the tanker. The driver said he spent over two hours in the cab of his truck, where temperatures soared to 140 degrees. Some plant workers noticed the driver slumped over his steering wheel, pulled him out of the cab and called 911. Paramedics took him to a local hospital.

Land Line spoke to the driver, who asked not to be quoted or identified in this story, and confirmed details of his account with representatives of Arkema Inc., who acknowledged a trucker suffered at heat illness at their Courtland, Va., facility on June 18.

Friday, July 17, 2015

A visit with Certy. He lives in a Post Office Box.

Hi there. I’d invite you to sit down, but as you can see, there’s no room for chairs in here. Can I get you an eyedropper of coffee or a prune Danish crumb? No?

OK. This is completely off the record, right? OK, then.

You can call me Certy for now. It’s a nickname for CERT, which stands for Coalition for Efficient and Responsible Trucking. We’re pushing 33-foot pup trailers. It’s an increase of only 5 feet and it will save fuel, end driver turnover, and eventually lead to world peace. Those longer pups will be so pretty that citizens will picnic along the Interstates just to watch them roll by.

Of course, in pairs they’ll increase overall length by 10 feet. It won’t be easy merging onto the highway with one of those babies, ha ha. But that’s not our problem is it? We stick to the script around here.

Anyhow, I work in post office boxes for some of the biggest PR firms in the world. Those guys hire me when they don’t have the budget for an office and for a stooge in a Neiman Marcus suit to front for them. If that was the case they’d be CERT at, say, 1000 K Street, Suite 5A.

But with all their money, those cheap big-trucking guys wouldn’t spring for that. No surprise there, eh? So what you’ve got is CERT at Post Office Box 66361, Washington, DC. That’s me, and as you can see, it helps to be really small.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

#TBT: Baseplate Baghdad

Editor’s note: It’s “Throwback Thursday” and you know what that means – time to dig deep into Land Line’s digital archive for some of our favorite blast-from-the-past stories. This week, we bring you a feature from the October 2004 issue, written by then-Feature Editor Jami Jones. It’s an account of life on the road for OOIDA Member Mark Taylor – who worked as a contractor in Iraq, where he drove a truck as part of a military convoy and came under fire from roadside explosives. For the full experience, you can click here and scroll down to also read a letter Mark’s wife Renee who wrote about what it was like at home during Mark’s absence.

The day starts like any other. Mark Taylor rolls out of bed, grabs a cup of coffee, maybe a bite to eat, and gets ready for another day in the truck.

He pulls on his jeans, T-shirt, boots — standard attire when on the road. He rips open the Velcro straps to adjust his body armor into place, puts on his Kevlar helmet and steps outside into another hot day in the desert of Iraq.

Driving a truck in Iraq is literally and figuratively a world away from rumbling down Interstate 80 on a cross-country run. Turning the key in the ignition and shoving the rig into gear is where the similarities end.

The convoy lines up in its military-dictated, and most importantly military-protected, formation ready to head out on the 12- to 15-hour day ahead.

Mark looks out through his windshield, which is lined with cardboard. The cardboard provides an ever-so-little bit of added protection from shattering glass in the event of an attack.

Like most truckers, Mark has taken the piece of cardboard and personalized it. He’s added an OOIDA member sticker and a picture of a very ugly puppy (because his handle is “Uglypuppy”), among other things.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Like a stubborn toddler, FMCSA needs a 'timeout'

After covering the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for more than 15 years now, I can say with some confidence I have a firm grasp on what regs and initiatives have and have not been successful. Apparently more so than some of the people who work there.

I could rip through dozens of regs, but let’s just focus on one reg and one program: Hours of service and Compliance, Safety, Accountability or CSA.

The latest incarnation of the hours of service is, quite simply, a joke. Truckers told the agency time and time again they needed the flexibility to take breaks when they need and want to.

Like a toddler being told something they didn’t want to hear, the agency took it to the extreme. “You want a nap. Fine. You’re gonna take a nap for how long and when we tell you. So there.” (I envision some pouting followed by stomping off with a smirk on the face.)

And just like the overreacting toddler, the agency is having to backpedal now because of a fundamental truth that is ignored time and time again: Trucking is a diverse profession. It’s not a bunch of Stepford drones out there driving trucks.

So a growing collection of segments of the industry are getting exemptions from the rest break. Begrudgingly I’m sure, the agency is caving on its knee-jerk mandate of rest breaks. Getting the agency to admit they were wrong in mandating a scheduled rest break isn’t going to happen. We’re going to see a nightmare patchwork of exemptions out there on the road as the unhappy toddler has to give back toys it took away, one at a time.

CSA. Ah, yes, CSA. Talk about a good-intentioned program that is a colossal failure.

Let’s go down the list of everyone who has a problem with CSA and want the scores pulled from public view. Truckers. Motor Carriers. Law enforcement. Members of Congress. Throw in a lawsuit filed by OOIDA that targets the data used by CSA and you round out a very comprehensive list of criticism.

You would think with bills pending in Congress, as well as letters from every advocacy group ranging from OOIDA to ATA and CVSA calling on the agency to hide the scores, that at some point there would start to be an overhauling of the program.

But, again, like our stubborn little toddler, the agency isn’t budging. I’m seeing a pouty-faced, arms-crossed, glaring youngster saying, “You can’t make me.”

In fact, the agency is forging ahead with a plan to tie yet another compliance label, the Safety Fitness Determination, to the faulty CSA program. Great – one more thing motor carriers big and small need to worry about.

Channeling the hard-nosed mom that I am, I’m here to tell you FMCSA needs its hind end put in time-out (that’s the PC, modern-era version of disciplining a kid instead of beating their butt and sending them to their room).

I’m not even close to the only one who thinks so. There is legislation in Congress to force the agency to revise how it approaches regulations, mandates transparency, mandates review of current regs, mandates more oversight. It’s quite the bill. You can read more about it here.

OOIDA is all for this. It has support for the effort on There are resources and tools for you to use to contact your lawmaker in support of reforming or fixing FMCSA, with the clever hashtag #fixFMCSA.

Since the unwilling, stubborn toddler of an agency isn’t getting the message any other way, it’s time we all rally together and dole out some stern discipline and oversight. It’s not going to change any other way.

Friday, July 10, 2015

‘11’ is the new 10 mpg, and one Wisconsin trucker thinks he can get there

By his own admission, OOIDA member Michael Niss puts the “hyper” in hyper-miler.

“Just hyper,” he says with a laugh when asked if he embraces the label. “Or crazy? There’s other words for it.”

Michael Niss
You could add “bold” to the list of descriptors as well. The 53-year-old from Wausau, Wis., is putting the finishing touches on his own super-truck, one that he hopes will surpass not just the “Holy Grail” of 10 mpg, but go even further. All the way past 11.

“Two years ago, I sat with one of my advisers, and I’d taken my truck that was getting 6.1 mpg and with the change to a better rolling-resistance Michelin tire, I’d gotten it up to somewhere in the 7s, and I asked him for an unrealistic goal and he said 11.”

When combining those fuel savings with reduced downtime from a “more reliable, pre-EGR” Detroit Diesel engine, Niss said he believes he’ll see a huge increase in his bottom line a year from now.

“I’m convinced that everything I’m doing, compared to the last rig I owned and operated, I’m going to save over $30,000 per year between the fuel savings, maintenance savings, and increased productivity,” he said.

As of Aug. 4, he’s going to be “up and down highways, pulling 40,000-pound loads through the Rocky Mountains.”

“I started out this whole pursuit looking at profitability primarily through fuel efficiency, because my first truck I was spending $70,000 per year on fuel.”

Turns out, Niss came up with four areas that he can have an impact on to maximize his profitability. Those four areas are:

  1. Fuel efficiency
  2. Maintenance costs
  3. Downtime (from being in the shop)
  4. Emissions and environmental impact

 “As I started looking at the maintenance costs and what it was costing me, I had a two-year-old truck that I was spending many, many thousands of dollars on … and I shouldn’t have spent that much money maintaining a two-year-old truck.”

There’s plenty more information about the specs and modifications Niss is making to his truck on his website,, but he’s taking a 2015 Kenworth T660 glider, with an 86-inch AeroCab Aerodyne sleeper. Under the hood, he’s got a remanufactured Detroit Diesel 12.7-liter 60 Series engine with an Eaton Fuller 13-speed transmission. He pulls a 2015 MAC aluminum low-ride flatbed covered with a custom-made contoured Quick Draw Tarp system.

The custom-tarp system is one of the most critical components to achieving the remarkable mileage goal. Niss said the contoured tarp will create an arched profile around his tractor and trailer, helping to maximize the aerodynamics.

Niss says he did a lot of experimenting on his first tractor-trailer with “off-the-shelf” items and homemade prototypes to maximize his fuel economy. Now, he’s taking some of the lessons he’s learned and designing his own custom rig to help him achieve a seemingly impossible goal.

“The science tells us the air will travel better over that arched surface,” he said. “The whole thing is based on trying to maximize an aerodynamic contour between the truck and trailer.”

Niss admits he’s only been in trucking for a relatively short time, (driving school and one year with Roehl Transport of out Marshfield, Wis., and now three years with Long Haul Trucking as a company driver, hauling flatbed loads). He said he hopes his website and social media presence will become a forum for interaction with other drivers who are experimenting with ways of maximizing their profitability and efficiency.

“I’m not trying to keep anything proprietary. “A lot of the stuff I’m doing, whether it’s Michelin tires or Chevron lubricants, I have no personal proprietary angle on any of this,” he said. “So I don’t mind sharing with hundreds of people what some of my successes are. I want to put this out there; I want to share information with as many people as possible. I’m looking for feedback.”

Up until one week ago, Niss said the project was completely self-funded. Since then, he’s received product funding from Truck Systems Technology for their tire-monitoring equipment; Centramatic, for their wheel balancers (which will be installed on the steer, drive and trailer tires); and Bergstrom Climate Control Systems, which is providing him with a battery-powered NITE Phoenix heating and air-conditioning system.

“Not everything I’m doing is applicable across the board to every trucker, but there are many of the things (I’m doing) that they can use as a resource,” he said.

While on the road, Niss said he typically stays in the 65 mph range.

“Anything over 55 and your aerodynamic curve is really going up,” he said. “In a truly scientific ideal world, I might be dropping down to 61 or 60, but I believe that since I’ve added so many aerodynamic features to help me overcome a little bit of the drag, that I can drive 65.”

He also keeps his trailer profile low, to reduce drag.

“I run down the road at 44 inches,” he said. “If a dock requires it, I have an over-inflation valve that gets me up to a 48-inch dock. … I’ve really tried to look at different ways to let the air to start to come over that truck, and then carefully address how it leaves the trailer.”

What he’s got under the hood may be even more impressive. A pre-EGR, Detroit Diesel Series 60, with a horizontal “weed-burner” exhaust.

Niss said the track record of the Detroit Diesel engine, for its durability and longevity, made it the ideal choice for this experiment.

“We chose it for fuel efficiency, less downtime, and an easier engine to maintain,” he said. “Now with that choice, the first arrow that’s slung my way is ‘What are you going to do about emissions?’ If I have a truck that is absolutely running its best, with the best internal lubricants, the best airflow, and every advantage that I’ve given that truck – the least restriction for the exhaust – my baseline is pretty good. I’m not saying that baseline is going to meet the EPA requirements, but for my grams of emissions per horsepower hour, I’m at a good starting point.”

From that baseline, Niss said he plans to experiment with after-market technologies to help address the emissions issues, including spherical crankshaft filtrations and muffler systems. He said in the meantime, if he has to “miss out on the opportunity” to haul loads in California, he will.

“California’s not a big part of my freight routes,” he said. “I get maybe one or two loads there per year.”

As he gets rolling next month, Niss said he plans to spend more time “carefully scrutinizing” cost versus payback. He also said he plans to post his “monthly fuel averages, only” on the website each month.

He said he hopes his project will inspire other drivers who are looking for a “realistic approach” to getting the most out of their equipment and their business.

“This is a truck that’s spec’ed by a truck driver, for a truck driver,” he said. “I don’t have any low-hanging components that are going to get ripped off on railroad tracks or anything that’s going to get in the way of me delivering freight.”