By Mike Antich
Overloading is the scourge of fleets. It creates an unsafe vehicle that can cause injuries and fatalities, which will invariably result in a lawsuit. Statistics show that overloaded and improperly loaded trucks are among the leading causes of truck accidents.
Overloading is a growing industry problem. One reason is that more fleets are seeking to lower acquisition costs by selecting lower-GVW trucks. Although this "strategy" saves money on the front end, the inevitable overloading increases operating costs on the back end. A corollary reason for spec'ing lower-GVW trucks is to avoid DOT regulations, which require drivers to have a commercial driver's license (CDL) to operate vehicles greater than 26,001-lbs. GVW. Also, with higher fuel costs, carrying larger loads results in fewer trips, increasing per-trip profitability.
Increased Accident Risk
Besides violating numerous state and federal regulations, when a vehicle is overloaded its emergency handling capability is reduced, which can result in an accident. For example, braking distance will increase, which causes drivers to misjudge stopping distances. Tire failure rates are higher because tires run hotter due to the increased load. In addition, a raised center of gravity adds to the risk of a rollover. Loads that are overweight, overloaded, unbalanced, or shift while moving increase the likelihood that a driver may lose control of the vehicle. For instance, if the load shifts when making a lane change or sudden turn, there is higher risk of rollover. Even if a vehicle does not exceed payload limits, improper loading can cause a truck to be off balance, also making it more susceptible to rollover accidents.
Another prevalent problem is axle overloading. Even though a vehicle's payload is within OEM limits, the vehicle may still be overloaded on one of its axles. It is possible that a front or rear axle is overloaded with only a portion of the maximum payload on the truck. Load distribution is the key to avoiding axle overloading. For instance, if the rear axle is carrying more than 90 percent of the total load for a conventional cab chassis, the front axle does not have enough weight on the driving surface. This can cause premature wear-and-tear on tires and suspension components. It also affects the driving characteristics of the vehicle.
Overloading shortens a truck's service and increases operating expenses. In fact, fleet maintenance surveys consistently show that overloading is the No. 1 cause of unscheduled maintenance for trucks. The manufacturer of the truck sets the GVWR according to what the vehicle can safely stop, carry, and perform at an acceptable level. Failure to consider payload and weight distribution may result in failure of equipment, personal injuries, and possible liabilities. Fleet managers should avoid modifying under-spec'ed trucks to accommodate greater payloads, such as changing tire sizes, adding spring kits, air shocks, heavy-duty brakes, and anti-sway kits. In many ways, these modifications are self-defeating. These components can add significant weight to the chassis, which reduces the available payload by several hundred pounds. However, the key reason to avoid modifying a vehicle is that it creates an unsafe situation by changing the integrity of the vehicle. In addition, modifications may result in warranty claim denial and increase liability exposure if there is an accident.
Fleet managers need to ensure drivers use better load distribution.
Design loading areas that force workers to position freight correctly. Schedule routes so freight is positioned for weight distribution, not just in the interest of delivery time. It is also important to train drivers on proper loading techniques so they don't create an unsafe situation. Eliminate unnecessary equipment or shelving. During the training process, don't forget to train forklift operators on proper freight distribution.
Time to be Proactive
One of the best ways to determine if your vehicles are being overloaded is to go into the field and assess vehicle usage. For instance, drivers may be requesting the wrong vehicle for the fleet application, while the fleet manager thinks everything is fine. Visually check for sagging rear-end; irregular tire wear; premature brake wear; and loose, unresponsive suspension and steering. All may indicate overloading. Maintain tighter inventory control of what is carried in the vehicle. Clean out all unnecessary items. If given an opportunity, drivers will carry everything they can conceivably fit into a vehicle.
A good rule of thumb to avoid overloading is to overspec for a fleet application when placing your new vehicle orders. Build a 15- to 20-percent cushion into a vehicle's payload capacity. Also, involve end users in spec'ing vehicles. If your overriding goal is to minimize acquisition costs by going to lighter trucks (while not changing payload requirements), try selecting a different category of vehicle. For example, a cargo van may not be the best for your needs; you might do better with a pickup truck with a topper combination and pull-out shelving system to haul more weight.
Too often, attempts to curb overloading are simply given lip service. Overloading is a safety issue, a risk management issue, and an operating cost issue. It's time to be proactive and make sure this doesn't apply to your fleet.
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