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Trailer Trash

Posted: August 1, 2014 by Passenger Service: State troopers ride-along with truckers in crash study

Last month, the consensus among the weather-forecasting groundhog community was that we’d get another six weeks of winter, which, if you believe (the increasingly tiresome) Wiarton Willie & Friends, would take us to right about now. Well, as Canadians, we sure know better don’t we?

It goes without saying that fleets in most parts of the country are used to trucking through blizzards until, oh, early May or so.

Regardless, there’s one aspect of winter driving that most fleets still haven’t figured out: How to keep giant chunks of snow and ice from falling off of trailers. They can be deadly.

Ironically, in a country where absolute liability for wheel-offs has been introduced in a least one jurisdiction (Ontario), government and industry spend little time discussing the problem of flying "ice missiles," which arguably project from trucks more frequently than tires.

Statistically, as a recent study by the American Transportation Research Institute (ATRI) concludes, there is virtually no empirical data available on related injury, property damage or the number of citations given by law enforcement because of falling ice. However, anyone who travels the highways daily in Canada or the northeast U.S. will tell you they witness a handful of close calls or worse every season.

If you asked them, most fleet mangers would quietly agree that accumulated ice on a trailer, weighing as much as two tonnes, is a major safety issue. Some even note the operational impacts such as weight limit violations and fuel economy.

But, as the ATRI study found, it is one of the most under-addressed issues in trucking, mainly due to a myriad of safety, financial, technical and market-based challenges.

In a survey of U.S. and Canadian fleets, ATRI reports that just over half (54 percent) of respondents "rarely or never" remove accumulated snow and ice. About 35 percent, though, tell of an experience of snow or ice causing injury or property damage to another motorist.

Another 21 percent responded "not sure," underscoring the fact that motor carriers and drivers are often unaware of such incidents while a vehicle is in-transit.

Glass Action Suit? A New York reader sent this photo
of her windshield after it was hit by ice flying off a trailer.

ON THIN ICE

The laws in North America regarding ice and snow projectiles are ambiguous at best.

There’s no legislation right now in either country that preemptively requires its removal from a vehicle, although a handful of states and provinces have attempted it over the years. Usually tabled by a backbench politician immediately after a related high-profile tragedy, these proposals often wither away during the legislative process.

New Jersey could be the first jurisdiction to change that

The Garden State’s Transportation Committee unanimously approved a bill — over the objections of the regional trucking association — that would require the removal of snow and ice from cars and trucks before they hit the road. The legislation, which at press time was expected to pass Senate scrutiny, penalizes drivers up to $100 per violation.

Although other states could follow suit, for the most part the majority of jurisdictions prefer to throw the book at drivers after the fact.

A Quebec law, for example, states: "no person… when driving a vehicle, [will] allow snow, ice or any other substance to fall from the vehicle onto a public roadway." The fine: $70.

But that’s only if you don’t hurt or kill somebody. In serious accidents, authorities in most provinces can broadly interpret other regulations governing commercial vehicles to stiffen the penalty, such as rules covering pre-trip inspections, size and weights, and cargo securement.

"Enforcement officers are aware of this recurring situation and will take action where they observe dangerous situations," MTO  spokeswoman Emna Dhahak told us.

So, snow and ice accumulation is at the arbitrary discretion of officers, as Rob Ward, general manager of London-Ont.-based Voyageur Express, can attest after one of his trucks was held up recently at a local weigh scale.

The company was not charged, just ordered to remove the snow before the driver continued. Dispatch called a mobile service who arrived with a ladder, someone climbed up on the roof of the trailer and shoveled the snow and ice off. Price: $185.

Ward says he thinks the Ministry of Labor might take issue with somebody climbing up on the trailer without the proper safety gear but the matter was never raised.

That last observation isn’t lost on safety managers, or on ATRI, which noted that although many outside the industry believe drivers represent one of the lowest-cost solutions in removing ice and snow, it’s also one of the most dangerous options, and most probably illegal.

Occupational health and safety legislation in both Canada and the U.S. prohibits workers from climbing to the height of trailer tops without approved fall-protection equipment or restraint devices, which are not widely available to drivers away from their fleet terminal, if at all.

"The potential for slips, falls and even death associated with individuals attempting to get to the tops of trailers covered in snow and ice to clean the trailer top far outweigh any potential benefits from this as a solution," notes the study.

OF ICE AND TIRE

Unfortunately, there are few easily accessible, industry-standard alternatives.

Google "snow and ice removal systems" for trailers or any related keywords and you’ll notice a surprisingly limited number of suppliers North America.

So agrees Kevin Brooks of Leevin Design & Fabrication in Barrie, Ont. "It’s tricky to find anything, even in Canada," he says.

His system, the Avalanche, was originally designed for SLH Transport in collaboration with that fleet’s former maintenance guru, John Lewis. Unlike more expensive automatic systems, the Avalanche has no moving parts. It’s basically a drive-through goalpost mechanism equipped with staggered blades that clear snow off a trailer as it passes underneath.

According to the ATRI study, though, most fleets simply end up building their own makeshift apparatus, to varying degrees of success.

Through years of trial and error, Erb Transport of Baden, Ont., has developed a system that works pretty well — so much so, that even a major customer asked the carrier for one.

Tom Boehler, Erb’s director of safety and compliance, says the fleet uses an empty trailer that’s been fabricated with a built-in catwalk on the inside. The left side of trailer roof has been cut open, so when a worker steps to the top of the catwalk he can stand on a secure scaffold, "waist high" with the tractor-trailer that pulls up next to him (see image below). He can then securely and safely scrape the snow and ice off of the trailer as it slowly rolls past.

Of course, many small fleets have neither the innovation nor the budget in these financially trying times to purchase such devices or design their own. Owner-operators often don’t begin their workday from a company yard and have limited or no access to snow-removal equipment.

A step ahead of Trouble: Erb’s innovative system
lets workers clear ice-clad equipment safely.

 If New Jersey’s upcoming rule catches on in other jurisdictions, future mandates could put hundreds of thousands of truckers in a difficult spot.

ATRI examined several other strategies, but few are viable, at least in the short-term. Legislators often ask if de-icing solvents, like the chemicals used in aviation are an option for truckers. ATRI points out that some of these fluids could damage certain trailers and the stringent environmental standards that govern their use is logistically impractical for the trucking industry.

ATRI’s research team also contacted several trailer manufacturers on the likelihood that future trailers could be designed more aerodynamically to minimize the thickness or formation of ice. But not only is there virtually no demand for such engineering, trailer makers point out that after three to five years of design and testing, it would still be another 10 to 15 years before the existing North American trailer fleet turns over.

Perhaps it’s government-operated weigh scales and inspection stations that can lead by example, such as in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, which between them have installed scraper-scaffold devices at nine stations (although, they’re said to be more effective at removing caked-on snow than solid ice).

The systems, offered to all passing truckers year-round, are also routinely used to check cargo securement on flatbeds. One drawback is that many truckers will avoid pulling into a weigh scale voluntarily — afraid they’ll get nabbed for an overweight load or some other unforeseen violation.

Vast availability of snow and ice removal devices would require buy-in from the entire supply chain, which, if history means anything, is barely plausible without mandated requirements.

Truckstops could be looked at to "develop a comprehensive network of snow removal options," states ATRI, although right now very few in North America offer any snow-removal services at all.

Convincing a vast network of shippers and consignees to get on board would be even more challenging, considering many already don’t like sharing their facilities with truckers. "Carrier interviewees indicate that most of their customers consider accumulated snow and ice on trailers as the carrier’s problem, namely because it is the carrier’s equipment," notes ATRI. ‘Nuff said.

It’s not hard to see, then, why any talk of preemptive ice-removal legislation targeting truckers is a red flag for carrier groups.

"Our position is that if the government is going to do anything, it better not put all the onus on the trucking industry," says Geoffrey Wood, VP, operations and safety for the Ontario Trucking Association

"It needs to be shared responsibly and shippers have to be held accountable for participating in the whole process."

That’s something the governors of New Jersey and other like-minded states might want to consider before signing anything.

 

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