Driving To Deliver Your Business

Shortage pushes trucking industry to accommodate smaller drivers …

Lindy Hartsfield-Vasquez likes trucking.

She started in January and likes the independence, the money and the opportunity to crisscross the country with her husband and driving partner, Jose, and their cat, Houdini.

She even has a new tractor, a 2014 Freightliner with all the bells and whistles. But as a 5-foot-2-inch woman, she finds challenges when she hits the road.

Turning the crank that lowers or raises the landing legs the things that support the front end of a trailer when it’s standing on its own can be tough. Same for disengaging the fifth wheel that hooks the tractor to the trailer.

After she scales an 18-inch-high step to get into the cab and straps herself in, the shoulder belt tends to cut into her neck. Then there’s a trade-off between good visibility and easy access to the foot controls.

Being as short as I am, I have trouble, Hartsfield-Vasquez, 49, said during a rest stop while on her way to Oak Creek, Wis., to pick up a load of freight bound for Gaffney, S.C. When I get the seat low enough to hit the pedals, I have trouble seeing over the dash.

Not exactly ideal when you’re guiding a vehicle weighing tens of thousands of pounds down the interstate at 60 mph.

It’s absolutely a challenge for a shorter individual, said Drew Bossen, a physical therapist and vice president with Atlas Ergonomics LLC, a Grand Haven, Mich., consulting firm that has studied discomfort among long-haul truckers.

Now, though, a Wisconsin-based advocacy group and a University of Wisconsin-Stout professor are working to make truck driving easier and more appealing for women.

Their work has gotten the attention of Ryder System Inc., a $6.4 billion Miami company that leases tens of thousands of heavy trucks and runs a freight-carrying operation with a fleet of about 4,000 semitractors.

And the quest to more comfortably accommodate women and smaller men occurs as the country’s carriers experience a driver shortage that some believe will get worse.

Jeanette Kersten, who teaches in the operations and management department at UW-Stout, teamed up with Wisconsin-based Women in Trucking to survey its members for their thoughts about truck design.

They found plenty.

Seat adjustability was really important, Kersten said. (And) adjustable steering wheels. Not all trucks have adjustable steering wheels. Adjustable foot pedals.

Ryder has embraced the issue. The firm says it has used the research of Kersten and Women in Trucking to identify female-friendly design changes and is encouraging manufacturers to consider them.

Helping propel that initiative is a shortage of truck drivers, estimated by research firm FTR at 215,000 below normal staffing levels. That means there is no one at the wheel of about 2 to 3 percent of the country’s semis, and 5 percent or more at some fleets, transportation economist Noel Perry, a senior consultant with FTR, said in an email.

With women accounting for less than 6 percent of drivers, according to Voie, a greater female presence in the big rigs could help.

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