For many fleets, Mother Nature throws drivers a new curveball every three to four months: snow and ice in the winter. Rain and fog in the spring. Scalding heat in the summer. Wind and more rain in the fall. Over-the-road trucks traveling long distances can even encounter several of these conditions in a single trip.
Whether your fleet must adjust to seasonal weather changes or tackle a variety of conditions between one origin and destination, these tips and tricks can help you properly weather the weather.
Harsh Winter Weather
Winter weather presents a host of challenging driving conditions, from snow and ice to reduced visibility, not to mention the salt and other chemicals used to treat roadways that can damage a truck’s exterior and interior.
Thom Schoenborn, VP of Marketing for Instructional Technologies Inc. (ITI), which provides online training to transportation and logistics companies, said the traditional advice to reduce speed in winter conditions isn’t enough to keep drivers (and their trucks) safe.
“Many drivers feel as long as they are driving below the speed limit, they will be safe. But it should always be about the speed for the conditions,” he said. “One driver reported that he had stopped and stepped out of his vehicle on a very icy road. He looked and thought that he was sliding, but upon a second look, he realized the truck was sliding sideways to the edge of the road! So, in some cases, 0 mph can be traveling too fast for conditions, and drivers should find a safe place to stop until conditions improve.”
Due to the hazards winter weather presents, Schoenborn said fleets are wise to remind drivers of safe driving practices each year.
“We have a separate winter driving course for work trucks, and many clients re-assign it each fall,” he said.
Some of those tips include:
- Go slow and increase the following distance.
- Be gentle with acceleration and braking.
- Plan routes to avoid hills when possible.
- Carry and use chains in states that require them (and practice putting them on before the flakes begin to fall).
- Perform complete and thorough vehicle inspections to ensure everything is working before setting out.
- Wear boots appropriate for winter weather.
- Keep survival supplies in the vehicle in case it gets stuck.
“Snow and ice can be some of the most difficult conditions to manage on the road,” said Brent Bergevin, VP of Transportation for Love’s. “Safety always comes first, so drivers need to be prepared by having the proper equipment and being weather aware.”
In addition to posing safety hazards, winter weather can also be hard on fleet assets. For instance, anyone who has driven a vehicle in the winter — especially one parked outdoors — knows cold conditions can make start-up difficult.
Darryl Purificati, OEM Technical Liaison for Petro-Canada Lubricants, said choosing the right lubricant for cold weather can assist with cold starts and prevent damage to the engine.
“Extremely cold conditions make it incredibly difficult for a vehicle to start-up. These temperatures affect the lubricant’s viscosity, as it could take longer to warm up. When temperatures drop into the ‘critical’ zone of the lubricant’s operating range, the lubricant can thicken or become overly viscous,” Purificati explained. “This can be detrimental to the engine hardware, and if lubrication flow is negatively impacted, the engine could seize up or fail, leading to significant unplanned downtime and expensive repairs which can impact the business’ bottom line.”
Purificati said the solution is to choose a lubricant that has a lower cold cranking viscosity (CCS), which means that the fluid will flow faster through the components upon start-up in cold temperatures, providing better wear protection.
“For fleet owners and operators working in very cold environments, changing to a lower viscosity oil that can maintain its flow in lower temperatures is recommended,” he said. “Using lower viscosity grade oils, which are accepted by the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) ambient temperature requirements, will ensure that the engine remains lubricated and can operate with improved efficiency.”
Daniel Erck, northern East Coast region sales manager for Webasto, said preheating a truck’s engine as a winter weather strategy can reduce wear-and-tear on a truck, while also reducing fuel consumption compared to letting it idle.
“Cold weather is hard on batteries, engines, transmissions, and drivers,” he said. “We have heating systems for the vehicle engine cooling system that can help bring the truck systems up to the operational temperature before the driver arrives. These options do not require the vehicle engine to run, so this will also save the fleet fuel, maintenance, downtime, and, most importantly, money. Preheating engines before start-up gives drivers the best and most fuel-efficient option to keep warm in their vehicles without idling.”
For instance, Erck said one 215-truck fleet in central Pennsylvania was having issues getting their trucks running in cold weather. Instead of spending time and resources getting their trucks started in the winter, they used an engine preheater to preheat the engine before the drivers arrived to start their trucks.
“They now utilize a Webasto engine preheater on all their trucks, which has reduced the hard-starting issues they were having by around 95%,” Erck said.
Winter can be hard on drivers, too, so Webasto also offers heating systems that keep drivers comfortable in the sleeper bunk overnight while using minimal fuel.
Beyond temperature, winter weather also comes with the salt and chemicals used to treat roadways, which can damage both the interior and exterior of a truck. Steve Hansen, director of marketing for Minimizer, said floor mats could help prevent interior damage caused by salt and snow.
“The number one cause of interior cab corrosion is salt tracked into the cab on a drivers’ boots. This salt combines with melted snow to leak into door jams where it has a major impact on wiring and other safety components,” he said. “Damaged floors can have a major financial impact on both lease-returns and resale value for those that own their trucks. One of the simplest yet cost-effective ways fleets can protect their investment is to use Minimizer tray-style custom molded floor mats.”
Melted snow and salt from roadways can also form a corrosive spray that damages a truck’s exterior. Hansen said a spray suppression fender could protect a truck by keeping water, dirt, grime, and chemicals off the vehicle, trailer, and load.
“Minimizer fenders have a lip integrated into each fender that redirects the road spray back to the ground, which keeps the truck, trailer, and equipment clean and protected,” he said. “Adding Minimizer custom-molded floor mats and spray suppressing fenders to your equipment will protect the interior and exterior of the truck, maximizing resale value and reducing the chance of a lease-return penalty.”
The Dangers of Rain While Driving
In some ways, the challenges rain presents are not unlike snow and ice.
“Rain, snow, sleet, or hail can cause adverse weather conditions for truck drivers. These conditions are similar in that they cause your tires to lose traction due to the mixture of water with asphalt and oil on the road,” said Deepak Patnaik, product marketing manager for HERE Technologies. “This makes it harder to slow down and brake properly, as well as reduce your visibility and vehicle control. Furthermore, in severe cases, heavy precipitation can lead to lane submersion, increasing the risk of getting into an accident.”
But while snow and ice can be daunting, Schoenborn of ITI said fresh rain after a dry spell is the most challenging weather condition.
“We’ve all made the joke ‘it’s like they’ve never seen rain before!’ but the reality is roads are slick, and peoples’ rain-driving reactions are off,” he said. “After a fresh rain, drivers don’t judge distance as well and don’t leave enough space cushion.”
To mitigate the effects of rainy conditions, Schoenborn suggested drivers do the following:
- Reduce speed to retain control of their vehicles.
- Use their lights to be seen by other road users.
- Inspect the truck’s tires, lights, and wipers daily.
- Expect that other vehicles have reduced visibility and traction.
- Communicate actions early and watch for signs other drivers can’t see them.
- Leave more space ahead of the truck.
- Take turns slower.
- Aim for a “lighter foot” when it comes to braking and accelerating.
Patnaik advised drivers pay special attention to stopping distance in rainy conditions.
“In adverse weather, especially heavy rain, the stopping distance will largely increase. If the truck is fully loaded, it will take about two football fields for the truck to come to a stop. It is important for truck drivers to keep the weight of their vehicle in mind and respond accordingly to any additional weather effects,” he said. “On slippery roads, truck drivers should not utilize their jake brakes (usually on diesel vehicles), as the breaks are not equipped to slow the vehicle in icy or wet weather conditions. Furthermore, truck drivers should also restrain from overusing their foot breaks when their truck and the trailer are not in alignment.”
In addition to slick conditions, rain can also pose visibility issues, especially in terms of spray.
“I think we’ve all met a semi-truck on the road only to be completely blinded by the road spray that is tossed up by the turbulent air swirling around the tandem tires,” said Hansen of Minimizer. “Fleets using Minimizer spray suppressing fenders reduce the amount of road spray drastically, which keeps the roads safer for everyone.”
Seeing Clearly in Fog and Wind
Rain isn’t the only weather condition that poses visibility issues. Both fog and wind can make it difficult for drivers to see, too.
“Foggy weather drastically impairs the driver’s ability to see the road ahead, thus diminishing the amount of time they have to respond to other drivers or possible dangers. Fog is the most hazardous weather condition, making it difficult to judge speed, as well as judge the distances of cars in front or behind you,” said Patnaik of HERE Technologies. “Wind can also influence visibility on the road, as snow, dust, or debris will likely enter a driver’s field of vision. Furthermore, wind-blown snow or debris can accumulate and could potentially cause a lane to become obstructed, increasing the probability of getting into an accident.”
While all drivers must suffer the visibility issues associated with fog and wind, trucks in particular are more susceptible to dangerous crosswinds because of how large the profile is.
“Heavy crosswinds can become powerful enough to blow a truck out of one lane and into another, or completely off the road,” Patnaik said. “If operating a tractor-trailer, it is particularly important to be aware of high winds that could cause the trailer to sway uncontrollably, or even knock it over completely.”
In these conditions, Schoenborn of ITI said knowing the direction of the crosswind and appropriately managing the space around them are essential.
“Vans and box trucks are basically sailboats with wheels,” he said. “If you feel yourself getting blown to the left, drive in such a way that you keep the left side of your vehicle clear of other cars. If the wind starts to tip your vehicle and the space is clear, turn the vehicle away from it. But, if the wind starts to tip your vehicle, you need to get out of the weather and seek shelter.”
Staying Safe on the Road in the Heat
While not as visibly dangerous as fog and wind, heat can have a significant impact on both trucks and drivers.
“High heat leads to faster wear and tear of brakes and tires, so regular maintenance is key,” noted Patnaik of HERE Technologies. “High heat also affects the physiology of the driver, so they should be sure to stay hydrated and take more frequent breaks.”
According to ITI’s Schoenborn, 46% of all on-the-job heat illness happens on the first day, and 80% happen within the first four days of a job. Training new employees about how to stay safe in the heat is critical, as is training all employees to watch for signs of heat-related illnesses in each other.
“Providing appropriate clothing and clothing guidelines, shade, and water are reasonably simple,” Schoenborn said. “Less simple, but most important, is building a culture that allows people to slow down, take more breaks, and acclimate. When the weather gets hot, your company may need to accept a lower level of productivity.”
In the heat, lubricant choice is again essential, as heat can lower viscosity and reduce the protection of engine parts.
“If the oil’s viscosity is too low, the oil film thickness may be inadequate, which could compromise the protection of the engine parts, causing friction that can lead to accelerated wear and overheating,” said Purificati of Petro-Canada Lubricants. “This can cause serious operational problems such as a breakdown of the oil film, reduced power, increased oxidation rates, and fuel economy losses due to oil thickening. A climate that experiences warmer temperatures all year long may necessitate a heavier engine oil such as an SAE XW-30 or XW-40 grade, which can resist breakdown at higher operating temperatures by ensuring proper and adequate film thickness and the protection of critical engine components.”
Catch-All Solutions for Changing Driving Conditions
While there are many condition-specific tips for weathering the most common weather conditions, there are a few catch-alls, too.
For instance, Petro-Canada Lubricant’s Purificati said fleets that encounter a variety of weather conditions could use multi-grade heavy-duty engine oils such as an SAE 10W-30 to operate safely in both hot and cold environments.
“These lubricants are popular with operators because it means that they can stock fewer products in the workshop throughout the year,” he added.
For Bergevin of Love’s, staying aware in all conditions is key.
“For all weather, drivers need to be aware of warnings in local areas — having a good logistics team is important in these situations,” he said. “In all conditions, it’s especially important for fleets to watch their speed and make sure tires are in great shape. Fleets always need to drive safely and defensively.”
Patnaik of HERE Technologies said telematics solutions powered by location intelligence could help fleets anticipate or avoid adverse conditions, change routes or modify schedules and eliminate delays and disruptions.
“When Location Intelligence is combined with weather data, a two-way channel between driver and fleet manager or dispatcher provides the means to make continual adjustments to routing, optimizing efficiency on every trip,” he said.
For Schoenborn of ITI, training is key to help drivers know what to do and empowering them to make safe decisions.
“The best way to manage all weather conditions is to train the drivers to reduce their speed,” he said. “There are routine cultural changes too, like encouraging wiper replacement and checking tire wear. Those are critical safety equipment, but many drivers don’t even know how to check them. Weather, time of day, traffic, geography, and equipment mean there’s a million choices to consider. Because of that, a culture of safety needs to prevail. The more often you train on safety, the more often drivers can evaluate the situation correctly.”