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Why is flatbed trucking so dangerous?

3 flatbed drivers have been killed recently by loose cargo

Mike’s first flatbed delivery was about 20 years ago when he transported a load of granite tombstones during a cold, snowy day and night in Minnesota. Having just finished driver orientation and training for a flatbed carrier, he was looking to make money right away. 

Hauling that load of tombstones paid well but …

“Nobody told me what it was going to be like,” said Mike, who spoke to FreightWaves on the condition of not using his last name. 

“I went there totally unprepared. It was a difficult load to secure. I got there in the early afternoon, it was super cold and snowing, and I didn’t get done securing the load until after midnight.”

The adverse weather conditions made transporting the load difficult, and the size and weight of the tombstones was also daunting. Tying down the granite tombstones on the flatbed “felt like taking a stack of Jenga blocks, tossing them across a coffee table and then saying, ‘OK, secure all that stuff down,’” Mike said.

When he stopped to eat, he called his wife. 

“Baby,” he told her, “I think I might have made a mistake. I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m scared everything is going to fall off.”

Eventually, Mike was able to transport the tombstones to their end customers, which included stops at several different locations.

“When it was finally said and done and I didn’t mess up, I didn’t break anything, nothing fell off and the [delivery] counts all matched, I felt very good about what I had done,” he said. “But I felt like I took way too long to do it and I still wasn’t sure that I would be good at this.”

Mike’s first load underlines the various difficulties that are part of flatbed trucking — including  a steep learning curve, the manual labor involved, the hours it can take tying down and tarping loads, dealing with bad weather and staying alert for careless passenger vehicles.

While everything went safely and his first flatbed load, several recent deaths apparently caused by improperly secured loads shifting during transport highlights the risk involved in flatbed trucking.

Trucking accidents

Flatbed driver Jason Gilbert, 52, was killed in Louisiana on April 4 when he slowed for a red light and the load he was transporting came loose and crashed into the trailer cab.

“As it came to a stop, the heavy load on the trailer shifted, causing the straps to break and the load to move forward into the cab,” a release from the Louisiana State Police stated.

Eight days later, another flatbed driver, Enrique Lozano Castro, 47, died near Evanston, Wyoming. The load he was carrying dislodged and smashed into his cab. 

“As the commercial truck crested a hill, [Lozano Castro] observed other crashes on the road and began to brake,” according to a report from the Wyoming Highway Patrol (WHP). “As the truck slowed, the unit’s trailer began to jackknife to the right, causing the vehicle to exit the roadway and come to an abrupt stop. The sudden stop caused the load on the trailer to break free and slide into the cab portion of the truck.”    

Castro, who was pronounced dead at the scene, was not wearing a seat belt. Equipment failure is being investigated as a potential contributing factor in the accident, WHP announced.

In January, a flatbed driver was killed near San Diego when a load of heavy sheet metal he was transporting moved forward and smashed through his cab. The driver reportedly had to brake suddenly while traveling on a highway. The cause of that accident is still under investigation and law enforcement has not released the name of the driver.

Flatbed drivers can make good money doing dangerous work

Flatbed and open-deck trailers are a smaller portion of the U.S. trucking industry compared to dry van and refrigerated trailers, which totaled about 1.7 million and 400,000, respectively, in 2021.

Statistics on the total number of flatbed and open-deck trucks operating in the U.S. are not readily available. The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA) said while dry van trailers are the most common trailer pulled, the majority of the 350,000 owner-operators in the country pull flatbed or reefer trailers.

Flatbeds are the most widely used open-deck trailers in the trucking industry. They can haul a variety of commodities, including steel, rebars, steel coils, lumbar, construction materials, military equipment, machinery and other heavy goods. Flatbed trailers are typically 48 feet in length but can be as long as 53 feet.

According to Zippia, the average flatbed truck driver salary in the U.S. is $58,000 per year. The average entry-level salary is $39,000 per year. At some of the megacarriers, flatbed drivers can make up to $88,000 a year.

The average flatbed spot rate (TSTOPFRPM.USA) is currently $3.89, higher than both dry van and reefer spot rates, according to the Truckstop.com seven-day flatbed rate per mile in FreightWaves SONAR platform.

A graph with three different lines showing a downward trend of the the per mile rate paid for flatbed loads.
SONAR: Truckstop.com seven-day flatbed rate per mile (TSTOPFRPM.USA). To learn more about FreightWaves SONARclick here.

Considering the dangers involved, some drivers must weigh the risk of flatbedding.

Shelli Conaway, a 52-year-old flatbed driver, said there’s often a misperception in the industry that “flatbed is easy.”

“A lot of drivers leave van or refrigerated companies and never received the training on how to properly secure flatbed loads — for their lives and the lives of others,” Conaway told FreightWaves. “Flatbed is hard work, in the cold and rain and heat, but it’s rewarding for someone that likes to be hands-on.”

The recent deaths renewed safety concerns for flatbed driving and how to possibly make it safer. Devices known as headache racks, bulkheads or headboards — oftentimes made of aluminum and sometimes steel — used to be required to protect flatbed drivers from shifting loads.

Headache racks haven’t been required since 2004 when federal regulations were changed.

Today, many truck drivers still have headache racks in their tractors but use them to store tools and supplies rather than for protection.

“Headache racks are more for storage,” Conaway said. “Look at all the loads that came through a rack and into the cab of the truck. Most are just made of aluminum, so I don’t think they are a necessity.” 

FreightWaves recently conducted a survey about headache racks and bulkhead usage among flatbed truckers. Some respondents said headache racks don’t provide any additional safety, while others said they wouldn’t travel without one.

“Headache racks do nothing for shifting loads. Unless they are reinforced steel (part of the trailer), which almost zero are, they are only for chain/binder storage,” one truck driver said in the survey response. “Aluminum racks won’t stop a load that has shifted forward enough to hit it.”

Another respondent said he always used a headache rack when driving for Lowe’s and Chep, a pallet and container company.

“It’s definitely helpful. If you don’t have a headache rack, you need to put extra straps on the first part of the load,” another driver said.

Another driver said whether a headache rack increases safety depends on the load.

“A full load of foam insulation or Sheetrock probably won’t even dent the rack in the event of a forward shift of the load, but a 45,000-pound steel coil loaded suicide or a full load of structural steel I-beams or a load of steel pipes? Yeah, that will almost ALWAYS smash right through the headache rack and probably out the front of the cab,” a respondent said.

Securing loads is vital to safety

Lewie Pugh, a former flatbed driver, said flatbed is probably harder than dry van trucking, but tanker and oversize hauling are also difficult jobs in the trucking industry.

Pugh is currently the executive vice president of OOIDA, which represents small business and independent professional truck drivers. Pugh said one of the more challenging aspects of learning flatbed is the various methods and equipment needed to tie down loads.

“There’s different processors for different machinery and equipment,” Pugh told FreightWaves. “Even when you load a steel coil on your truck, there’s different ways you chain it depending on how it’s loaded on your truck. Usually you chain it on your truck a certain way for wherever you’re delivering it.”

Large coils of steel are often referred to as “suicide coils” or “suicide loads” in flatbed trucking. Suicide and shotgun are terms often used to describe how the coils are loaded. If a coil can roll forward into the truck’s cabin, it’s loaded suicide. A shotgun load is used to describe when a coil is loaded so that it will roll off the side of a trailer.

Pugh said at the end of the day, every driver has to look out for their own safety, even when shippers might not be.

“Usually 99.9% of the time, it’s the shipper’s responsibility to place the load on the trailer,” Pugh said. “It’s usually the driver’s responsibility, the driver’s problem, how and where you want to place it on the trailer. Personally I have had a few times where I’ve actually — because either I didn’t feel the load was packed safely for transportation or the shipper didn’t want to put it on my truck in a safe manner — so I just refused the load and went and did something else.”

The different ways to tie down loads is thoroughly discussed in the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations Handbook, often referred to as the green book or green bible in the trucking industry, Mike said.

“It’s very well covered in the green book that all truckers are required to have in their trucks,” Mike said. “The rules for tying down cargo, generally, the best way to start off is length. Depending on the size of your load, it is going to first and foremost depend on how many securement devices you have, which can be anything from a chain to a strap.”

Mike also doesn’t think making headache racks or bulkheads mandatory in trucking again would make flatbeds safer. 

“I don’t see how rolling additional regulations onto an industry that is so heavily regulated right now is going to help it,” Mike said. “If you add more pages and words to the green book, what you’re going to do is educate a safety guy at a trucking company. You’re not really going to educate the driver because there’s already so much information in that book.”

Conaway said better training and education for flatbed drivers would be better than adding more regulations. Conaway also said passenger vehicle drivers need to understand how dangerous flatbed loads can be and give them plenty of room on the road.

“Cars need to be aware of the dangers and truck drivers need to train on proper securement and be taught to drive for the load they are hauling,” Conaway said. “Coils, flat steel, beams and other loads all need to be secured properly and drivers need to drive like someone can stop in front of you at any time.” 

Pugh’s advice for anyone thinking of becoming a flatbed driver is to first go and “try to find some good, experienced teachers.”

“Secondly, and most importantly, it takes about two to five minutes to throw one more strap or throw one more chain to be on the safe side,” Pugh said. “Take the extra time now and throw it on so you don’t regret it later.”

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Noi Mahoney

Noi Mahoney is a Texas-based journalist who covers cross-border trade, logistics and supply chains for FreightWaves. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in English in 1998. Mahoney has more than 20 years experience as a journalist, working for newspapers in Florida, Maryland and Texas. Contact nmahoney@freightwaves.com