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Deadhead? Or Not? How to Judge
Sometimes things are not cut and dried. It can be difficult to decide which is the least costly, sitting or deadheading. As an owner operator I had to come up with my own decision of what was acceptable. When I started trucking over the road. I worked for a union flat bed company. We were paid a percentage of whatever the load paid. That means if you were running empty, you were making nothing. You do not get paid for your deadheading. We used to do a lot of it and I had issues with it. After a particularly bad week of deadheading I just happened to get an opportunity to talk to the owner of the company. As I was fueling up my truck before parking it he showed up on the fuel island. He asked me how I was doing. "I told him fine, but I had a question about why we deadheaded so much?"
His reply shaped my whole trucking career and over the years probably kept me in business. It worked for him and he had over a 150 trucks running at any given time. He answered, "It is really pretty simple. If a truck is not moving, it is not making money. If a truck is sitting, it is still costing money. So if the freight is not moving where you are at, you move to where the freight is moving." Over the next three years I watched pieces of that logic come into play.
On any given Monday we would have as many as fifteen to twenty trucks on the East Coast in the area of New York City. Our dispatch was first empty, first choice. The exception to that rule was Fridays and weekends which were seniority first. There would usually be far fewer loads available than trucks. The key to getting a load was getting empty first. A couple times I thought I would have to deadhead because a couple other people emptied before me. However, on a couple of occasions, the first empty guys passed and did not take a load. They then had to deadhead to the Pittsburgh area. All the loads had to be covered and when it got to the point all they had was five loads and five trucks you did not get a choice. You had to take one. The more senior drivers were passing on the cheap East Coast freight and deadheading the 400 miles to Pittsburgh.
After a couple of years I figured out why. The loads on the East Coast were cheap and heavy. They also usually did not load till late in the day or evening and had to be tarped. One of the chief loads we hauled were "slinkies" out of Raritan Steel in Perth Amboy, NJ. They were coils of steel wire that resembled a slinky in appearance, hence the nickname. After a couple years I figured out why the senior guys would deadhead to the Pittsburgh area. The loads in that area paid a lot better and they usually took you to an area where the company had more "good" freight. Usually you would have two and a half days tied up in the cheap load. A day waiting to get it loaded. A day hauling it. Then you would get empty so late you had to wait till the next day to get reloaded. You quickly learned that leaving the East Coast early let you load in the Pittsburgh area on Monday evening and deliver sometime Tuesday back in the Midwest. Which was also in the good freight area. So your weekly pay check could be better even though you deadheaded 400 miles at the start of the week.
The second thing that influenced my view of deadheading was my last job before becoming an owner/operator. I deadheaded to Alabama every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to pick up a load of chickens for the wholesale meat distributor I hauled for. That job lasted five years and I made good money, but half of my income was from deadheading 500 miles to pick up the load of chicken.
Those situations shaped my trucking attitude and career. As my first boss pointed out to me. It cost money to own a truck whether it is moving or sitting. Even when it is sitting the payment on the truck and insurance is still going to come due. The permits and fees are still going to come due. Finally your personal bills are going to come due. You can figure out how much you should make per month with a truck if all goes well. The trick is figuring how much does a day sitting cost you. If your truck payment is $2000 a month that is $66 a day whether it is running or parked. Insurance and permits can easily add another $30 per day. Then you have to eat whether you are running or sitting. So either way the truck can be costing you $100 a day. Notice we have not figured in your house payment, car payment, utilities, credit cards and etc. Sitting is not cheap
Theoretically if the truck is moving it is making money. However sometimes through no fault of your own. There is no freight where you are at. So if you sit four or five days you have added up well over $500 dollars worth of expenses. If you deadhead it may cut the amount of the sitting cost. The determining factors are the availability of freight. The companies you work with or for can be a big factor in this kind of decision.
Throughout my trucking career I deadheaded from L.A., CA and Phoenix, AZ to Indiana more times than I care to admit. The trick was that I was deadheading to a very good paying load. It is a judgement call. I knew if I sat very long the freight my companies hauled off the West Coast would not repay the cost of sitting and waiting for it. I could have made shorter deadheads to maybe Oklahoma or Texas, but again the good freight for my company was in the Midwest.
My last four years of trucking I hauled mostly kitchen cabinets to the New England area. My loads paid very good revenue per mile. They also paid stop pay and unloading pay. Sometimes the loads with 20+ stops paid more for stops and unloading than they did for hauling. When I emptied Wednesday morning I put it in the wind and went home to Indiana. I would spend Thursday evening, Friday and half a day Saturday at home. Then I would go pick up my preloaded trailer and head back to the East Coast to start delivering on Monday morning.
Many people asked me why I would do that. It was really pretty simple. The good paying loads always shipped on Friday and Saturday with delivery starting on Monday. If I spent time on the East Coast getting a cheap load as back haul sometimes I would miss the load going back east. Also I would miss my at home time. It was a decision I had to make, but I looked at what my previous employers had done. They made good money and so I just adapted their game plan to the way I operated and I survived.
There were a couple other factors I figured into the equation of what to do. Cabinets were light. Usually a full load was under 10,000 pounds. That meant better fuel mileage, less wear and tear on my truck, tires and other components. In the long run and hindsight. It all worked for me. Each person has to decide what works for them. Some people make a decent living hauling heavy freight and are home often. Coal and gravel haulers are just a couple of examples. Short runs like that do not appeal to me though. I preferred the longer runs. Each driver has to figure what works for him. With fuel prices where they are at today. I do not know for sure my tactics would work today. I retired in January of 04 just as fuel prices were starting to get crazy.
It is my hope this helps someone to figure out what works for them. I watched a lot of guys go out of business when I was trucking because they would not deadhead for nothing. They would sit in Dallas or L.A and still be there a week or two later when I returned with my next load. My number one rule of thumb was that if I took a load into a cheap freight area, it had to pay good enough to pay for the fuel to deadhead back out of the area to start with. A couple of my other simple rules. Do not haul cheap freight period. Let it rot on the dock. Do not haul heavy freight unless it pays good or takes you to where freight does pay good. Have a good time and keep jamming. If you see an old Chevy panel van with "Turtle" on the driver's side door. Honk and say "HI" I may be downsized a bit, but I still get out an go when I can.