July 7, 2014 at 8:54 pm

Trucking industry takes notice as smaller drivers voice complaints

Lindy Hartsfield-Vasquez makes an adjustment to her truck during a recent stop. As a 5-foot-2-inch woman, she faces challenges when she hits the road. (Rick Romell / MCT)

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 faces 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 its own freight-carrying operation with a fleet of about 4,000 semitractors.

And the quest to more comfortably accommodate both women and smaller men comes as the country’s carriers face 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. Not only adjustable foot pedals, but guess what — foot pedals are too small.”

And for some, like Hartsfield-Vasquez, too far away.

“Women typically have shorter legs, wider hips, shorter arms,” said Ellen Voie, president and CEO of Women in Trucking. “And the seat belts are an issue. A lot of our drivers have said, ‘Hey, the seat belt’s chafing against my chest for 11 hours a day.’ So they would put the seat belt behind them. Well, that’s just wrong.”

The problems aren’t gender-specific, Voie said.

“We try to make it clear because a lot of drivers misunderstand,” she said. “We’re not trying to make the trucks designed for women; we’re trying to make them adaptable.”

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. Ryder has been looking at such things as adjustable foot pedals, the visibility of dash gauges and the height of seat belts.

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 percent 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.

The industry has been through driver shortages before, but this one may be more systemic, with the available pool shrinking because of stricter standards and more demand because of greater restrictions on driver hours.

Things are so tight, said longtime drivers’ wages analyst Gordon Klemp, that even Wal-Mart, where over-the-road truckers in its private fleet average a gold-plated $76,000 a year, has taken to advertising aggressively for drivers.

Lindy Hartsfield-Vasquez became a trucker for the independence it offers. (Rick Romell / MCT)