Trucking industry takes notice as shorter drivers complain

  • Article by: RICK ROMELL , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
  • Updated: June 27, 2014 - 11:27 PM

Employees with shorter bodies, specifically women, are voicing the challenges of driving trucks.

Lindy Hartsfield-Vasquez became a trucker for the independence it offers.

Photo: Rick Romell, Mct - Mct

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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 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, 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.”

Hartsfield-Vasquez doesn’t do that, but she’s sometimes tempted to slip the belt under her left arm — also a no-no.

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

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