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Two by Two

by Jim Park

You can cover a lot of territory in 24 hours, when there's no need to stop for sleep. That's the nature of team driving. And with more and more shippers wanting their freight delivered yesterday, there are more and more carriers teaming up their drivers to meet those demands.

It's interesting to note that at a time when drivers are getting more difficult to find, there's still strong demand for driving teams, which use up the human resources twice as fast. Theoretically, a carrier could get twice the productivity from a team-driven truck, but that's not necessarily the case. Putting two drivers on a truck may potentially double the output, but it will still only serve a single customer. Regardless, the team concept is more popular than ever, and if you've ever thought of exchanging your privacy and autonomy for a few extra sheckles, then read on. Running team is a good way to earn the extra dough, but it's definitely not for everyone.

As any team driver will tell you, stuffing two adults into a mighty small living space for two weeks at a time is an exercise in compromise. So perhaps that's the best place to start. After you've found a place to stash the luggage, sorted the CDs, and decided who'll take the first shift, you'll likely be reminded to steer clear of the rough spots, don't play the radio too loud, and go easy on the brake pedal, unless it's absolutely necessary. But that's the kind of thing you'd do anyway out of consideration for the occupant of the sleeper. Team driving may cramp your style a little, especially if you're fond of cranking up a Bob Seger CD at three in the morning. Seger may help keep your adrenaline flowing, but it'll have the same effect on the poor sod in the bunk as well.

It helps if both drivers have similar taste in music, of course, but the value of a little compromise on the volume control can go a long way in keeping the team, a team. Smoking is another sensitive issue with team drivers. Both should either smoke or not. One or the other is bound to incite a riot if they can't come to some mutually agreeable terms on puffing away. Fleets who team up drivers willy-nilly, without due regard for their personal habits, aren't being at all fair. It's a difficult job at the best of times without struggling to keep your opinions about body odor, music, driving style and other irritants to yourself for long periods.

The sleeping/driving habits of team drivers can differ considerably as well, so it's a good idea to find a partner who likes the same on-off rotation as you. If you manage on a four-hours-on, four-off rotation, you'll be pretty unhappy with a partner who likes to run for eight and sleep for eight, and there are drivers who can do that even on the roughest roads. They should be sainted.

"It's not the easiest thing to do if you haven't got the right person to run with," says veteran owner-operator Cathy Leeper. "The biggest adjustment for me wasn't learning to trust my partner's driving, or the idea of sleeping in a moving vehicle, but adjusting to the routine of sleeping and driving in short bursts."

The other challenge she mentions was the first day or two out after a bit of time off. "That was a difficult adjustment, sitting there bug-eyed in the passenger seat because I wasn't tired enough to sleep," she says.

Duffield, Alta.-based Leeper runs alone now, and has done for years, but she spent a summer teaming on the Alaska Highway hauling cement with a Super B. She and her partner ran the 2500-mile, two-and-a-half-day round trip from Edmonton to Whitehorse twice a week.

The reward, however, for putting up with these and other bits of friction that can arise in a cheek-to-jowl relationship is the extra earning potential. Wages vary considerably across the board, but generally speaking, teams are paid a nickel a mile or so more than single drivers, with the rate split 50/50 between the two. If you can cover 6000 miles in a week at 20 cents a mile, you'll be carting home $1200 for a week's work. Not bad when all you do is drive and sleep.

Teams don't work quite as well if there are multiple stops along the way to slow the truck down, unless the time is compensated. Still, there's money to be made on the right runs. Scheduled runs, like courier routes or dedicated freight, are set up for teams to keep the wheels turning. They work well in terms of take-home pay, but the schedules can put a lot of pressure on the team, especially in bad weather. There's nothing that brings a driver out of the sleeper faster than the sensation, even if it's only imagined, of sliding sideways down the highway in a snowstorm.

One Bank Account

One real advantage to team driving is when your co-driver also happens to be your real-life partner.

"There's some serious money to be made in a single-income team situation," says retired team driver Mary Ann O'Neill. "I started out, originally, just to spend more time with my husband, who was away a lot as a single driver," she says. "The money wasn't really a consideration at first, but within three years we had a really healthy downpayment for our first home."

Do the math, and you'll see how right she is. Even at a modest $1000 per week salary, if all of the second income goes straight into the bank, there'll be $50,000 salted away in no time. It's no different for owner-operators, although the truck buying and payment strategy has to be altered to account for the extra miles run over a shorter period. Putting 250,000 miles a year on the truck trims the fixed costs to a bare minimum, although the running costs remain consistent with the mileage.

Putting 500,000 miles on a truck in two years plays havoc with the warranty, so if you're planning to put a truck into a team operation, you'll likely have to fatten up the payments so that they'll expire at the same time the warranty does. To do that, though, you might be looking at a monthly payment of $5000 or more. That may seem kind of scary, but everything's relative; you'll be earning twice as much too.

There are more than a few fringe benefits to this arrangement: travel, time together, and earning potential among them, but the pressure that a confined space puts on a relationship has to be managed pretty carefully. Different couples have their own coping mechanisms that seem to range from negotiating sessions to all-out brawls. How it's managed isn't as important as the fact that both partners are comfortable with the arrangement.

Typically, says Fiona Stevens, a relationship counselor with a practice in Winnipeg, the pair set their own ground rules, and the serious ones work really hard at staying within the boundaries they've set.

"That could mean not mentioning the fact that hitting the brakes too hard rolls the sleeping driver out on the floor until a later date when the floor is open for discussion, or fielding each outburst as it comes," she says. "It really depends on the personalities."

O'Neill had a regular run between Niagara Falls, Ont. and Las Vegas, Nev. for several years. She said they managed the togetherness thing by having her husband deposit her at a resort hotel for the day, while he went on into Las Vegas to make the delivery.

"I had a day of R and R at the pool, while Jim had the benefit of a little time by himself," she said. "When he came back, he'd kick around the pool for a while, we'd get showered and hit the road, although sometimes we'd spend the night at the hotel and leave in the morning."

Team Situations

Not all team-driving situations are the same. Some offer rather creative time-management options.

The first is the popular three-driver team, an arrangement where three drivers share the duties, working a two-weeks on, one-week off rotation. This way, each driver spends a week with one partner, then one week with the other as they rotate on and off the truck. After two weeks out, the driver gets a full week off. Not a bad deal. The pay isn't quite as good as a full-time team situation, but there's less stress, and more time off at home.

Obviously, teams are better suited for long-haul applications, but they can work equally well in mid-range situations, like in Leeper's 2500-mile round-trip run, twice a week. Where teams aren't quite as practical is the short-haul load/unload situation. It may work if the truck keeps moving, but every stop holds the potential of an unproductive delay.

Courier route and line-haul applications are fine for those who don't mind covering the same territory repeatedly - the work is predictable, and so is the money. The schedules usually allow sufficient time to score a little stationary rest between runs. If you're looking to play tourist for a period, then the long-haul open board pretty well guarantees a new and different destination every time out. An arrangement like this might be more enjoyable for the couple that likes to travel.

Then, of course, there's the training situation, where an inexperienced driver is placed into the care and control of a coach. Beware of situations that promote driver training in a team situation where the truck is still expected to produce full team mileage. This isn't a training situation; it's exploitation of the new driver.

Team driving is quite a departure from running single, and admittedly, it may be a little difficult for older drivers to adjust to. On the other hand, veterans willing to take on the role of a mentor or coach, in a properly managed training situation, could find team driving a highly rewarding experience. You may not cover the same number of miles, but you'll sure be making a significant contribution to the experience of an entry-level driver, and that's worth its weight in gold.

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