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by Jim Park

You should hear what the folks in the shop say about you behind your back. It's easy to criticize the caliber of help in the shop, especially when they never seem to get to your problem. But often, there's more to the problem than meets the eye. On the other hand, the folks out back frequently share a laugh over some of the work orders they get from drivers.

If you were a mechanic, what would you do with an inspection report that simply said, "The engine is missing." Well, the mechanic in this real case had a sense of humor, and sent a note back to the driver, saying, "Engine found. It seemed to be running rough so we did a tune-up."

On the surface, it would appear to be a communication problem. In fact, it's more complex, and may have an impact on more than just how well the engine runs.

According to Vic Wintjes, long-time maintenance supervisor turned asset manager and safety and compliance specialist, many of these points of friction could be eliminated if drivers had sufficient training in what's needed to make the proper call about vehicle condition. Wintjes manages Canadian Tire's massive fleet of rolling stock. Over the years he's seen his share of wacky vehicle condition reports. Today, he firmly believes drivers need to play a more active role in the maintenance process.

Different fleets deal with maintenance issues in different ways. Randy Schulz, general manager of R&G Transport in Regina, Sask., likes to see his drivers spending a little time talking with his mechanics.

"Communication always works better when everyone's on the same page," Schulz says.

In a small environment like the R&G fleet, that may work perfectly. But some larger operations, with a lot more throughput in the shop, get really concerned about drivers wandering around yakking with the mechanics.

Matt Bryan, fleet safety manager at Kinsdale Carriers of Woodstock, Ont., prefers to keep the drivers and mechanical staff apart, to some degree anyway.

"We'd like to see the drivers and the mechanics talking more often, but frankly, when they do get together, the talking doesn't always stay focused on the problem at hand," Bryan says.

He knows there's some value in improving lines of communication. So he maintains a drive-through inspection bay where he feels the personal exchange is good for the outcome of the preventive-maintenance (PM) program.

One of the obvious advantages of more personal contact with mechanics lies in their learning about the driver's level of mechanical aptitude and what he's capable of in terms of reporting and describing defects. This is becoming a big issue these days.

The Cry Sheet: How to Do it Right

Here are five tips to help you convey your message to the mechanic and gain maximum effect:

1. Prioritize - If there's more than one thing wrong with the truck, limit the items on your list to the most important. The longer the list, the less chance all items will be covered. Deal with the important stuff first so the mechanics won't have to decide for you what they're going to work on.

2. Plan Ahead - Get to know what constitutes a scheduled PM item and what's an immediate repair. Compile a list of minor problems for the next service. Deal immediately with the serious stuff. Ask the mechanic when the truck's next PM event is scheduled, and make sure the truck makes it back for that service. Make your own arrangements with dispatch to get the truck into the shop. Tell the mechanics that you've got a list going and advise them ahead of time if parts might be required.

3. Know What's What - Learn the names of truck components and understand what they do. Use terms like driver's side and passenger side to avoid confusion in locating problems. Identify the color and smell of various fluids and learn where they're used. If a fault indicator light was observed, note time and date and report it to the shop.

4. Learn What's Normal - Pay close attention to the normal sounds and smells of the truck and be able to identify an abnormal condition by sound or smell. Pay close attention to the gauges and get to know normal operating ranges. Report abnormalities when they happen, and make note of the conditions present at the time of the occurrence.

5. Avoid Frivolous Complaints - There are lots of reasons why mechanics might have overlooked a particular repair. Rather than take up valuable space on the next work sheet, draw it to the foreman's attention and ask why the work wasn't done. Also, avoid using the cry sheets for chronic difficulties such as perceived poor performance and rough ride. These problems may be real, but they're better addressed in a meeting with shop personnel than on a vehicle condition report.

Old, New, Borrowed and Blue

With today's mix of experienced, mechanically inclined drivers and the younger ones who are probably less so, mechanics are having a heck of a time deciphering some of the work orders, and deciding which ones to take seriously.

Some reports are incredibly detailed, sometimes overly so, Wintjes says, while others, like our earlier example, are a little vague. It's just hard for some people to describe a problem, or to imagine what the consequences of a given problem might be.

"Some drivers will require a lot more training than others, especially in some basic troubleshooting and diagnostic skills," Wintjes says.

Another problem Wintjes sees all too often is a driver focusing his maintenance requests on CVSA out-of-service criteria. That's not altogether bad, but the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance doesn't much care if there's oil in the engine or not. It would be better, he thinks, if fleets encouraged their drivers to play a greater role in the PM process.

"By getting drivers more involved," he says, "you're not only fostering a better understanding of how the regulations affect the maintenance decisions, you're presenting an opportunity to improve the cost of maintaining the vehicle."

So, maybe a clearer understanding of vehicle maintenance and regulatory compliance criteria would be of some benefit to fleets, but how about to drivers?

There's certainly an opportunity to train the driver to understand the maintenance needs of the truck, but the real advantage would lie in a greater understanding of the CVSA OOS (out-of-service) criteria.

When it comes to interpreting the regulations as they relate to vehicle condition, ignorance of the requirements creates a huge amount of friction. A driver might think a tire needs to be replaced before leaving the shop, while the mechanic could argue that the tire is perfectly safe. The driver then cites the regulations about tread depth while the mechanic counters that 2/32 of thread, measured at a minimum of least three points on the surface, is satisfactory. Then the feud begins.

Letting the driver in on the secrets of CVSA would require training, but it would provide the driver with a better than working knowledge of his equipment. He'd then have the confidence to debate and perhaps even disagree with a veteran mechanic, or even better, someone in uniform at a scale. That's where Wintjes sees the biggest advantage.

"We wouldn't be angering a driver by not acting on his work order if he knew not to make an unnecessary request," the Canadian Tire man says. "We could save a lot of money defending bogus charges in court if the driver offered a competent argument at the scale as well."

Wintjes is really saying something here.

"But there's always the issue of interpretation of a regulation," he points out. "We can spend a lot of time arguing whether or not an item is a critical defect. But in the end, the driver is the man who has to live with the call. When he drives the truck out of the gate, it's his baby."

Wintjes stresses that he's not interested in making mechanics out of truck drivers, and he's willing to acknowledge the challenges of putting even more onto the driver's plate. At the same time, he makes a good point when he asks. "Why wouldn't a professional driver want to know the difference between 'safe' and 'unsafe' within the bounds of the equipment he's operating?"

Under today's regulations, the driver is held highly accountable, yet he has little influence on the process that determines how well his truck is maintained. Checking the box on the vehicle report just isn't enough any more. Drivers need to understand what they're signing off on. When they understand what's at stake in their decision, they'll be better prepared to make the proper PM decision or OOS call.

So is the Wintjes proposal just shoving even more responsibility onto your already full plate? A closer look suggests that a driver armed with the proper tools will be better able to protect himself from trumped up charges at the scales; he'll be in a better position to ensure that maintenance and repair work has been done properly; and - heck, let's go for broke here - he'll likely save his employer a bundle of cash, some of which just might flow back into his pay packet. The advantages to any owner-operator under this plan should be as plain as the nose on your face.

So, just one more question: where does one go to get this kind of training? And to that one, we have no answer.

Sound Effects: What's That Thunk?

What's the difference between a rattle and a buzz? It could amount to hundreds of dollars, possibly more, depending on how accurately you can describe the problem to your technician. It may sound funny, but the ability to accurately describe the symptoms of a mechanical abnormality can save you a pile of cash. Why pay a mechanic $75.00 an hour to search for the problem? Try to be as accurate as possible, and go into the shop armed with as much detail as you can muster.

If you're an owner-operator quaking at the thought of the cost of an hour's worth of shop time, you'll understand why it's important to be able to isolate the symptoms of your problem. Telling the shop foreman that there's a funny noise coming from under the floorboards certainly helps. But a description of the noise, or being able to pinpoint its source, helps a lot more.

When the technician begins work on the vehicle, he'll be relying on your description of the symptom as a starting point. Be as precise as possible, and try to describe things like sounds or smells accurately. Thunks are different from clicks, and a whine is different from a buzz. Some smoke is white, while other smoke can be blue or gray. Learn to tell what's what as it billows out the stack. A word or two to the wise can be worth big bucks if it saves you some shop time.

It's also important to be aware of conditions at the time of the occurrence, especially if the problem is of an intermittent nature. What speed was the vehicle traveling? What gear was it in? Did the sound occur in sync with engine speed or wheel speed?

These are all clues that mechanics can follow to the scene of the crime. The more you notice, the quicker the guy with the wrench will be able to locate the trouble.

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