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, Wisconsin, to pick up a load of freight bound for Gaffney, South Carolina. “When I get the seat low enough to hit the pedals, I have trouble seeing over the dash.”
Not exactly ideal when you’re guiding a vehicle weighing tens of thousands of pounds down the freeway at 60 mph.
“It’s absolutely a challenge for a shorter individual,” said Drew Bossen, a physical therapist and vice president with Atlas Ergonomics LLC, a Grand Haven, Michigan, 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.
“We try to make it clear because a lot of drivers misunderstand,” she said. “We’re not trying to make the trucks designed for women; we’re trying to make them adaptable.”
Ryder has embraced the issue. The firm says it has used the research of Kersten and Women in Trucking to identify female-friendly design changes, and is encouraging manufacturers to consider them. Ryder has been looking at such things as adjustable foot pedals, the visibility of dash gauges and the height of seat belts.
Helping propel that initiative is a shortage of truck drivers, estimated by research firm FTR at 215,000 below normal staffing levels. That means there is no one at the wheel of about 2 percent to 3 percent of the country’s semis, and 5 percent or more at some fleets, transportation economist said Noel Perry, a senior consultant with FTR.
With women accounting for less than 6 percent of drivers, according to Voie, a greater female presence in the big rigs could help.
The industry has been through driver shortages before, but this one may be more systemic, with the available pool shrinking because of stricter standards and more demand because of greater restrictions on driver hours.
Things are so tight, said longtime drivers’ wages analyst Gordon Klemp, that even Wal-Mart, where over-the-road truckers in its private fleet average a gold-plated $76,000 a year, has taken to advertising aggressively for drivers.
Considered by many to be “the Cadillac company to drive for,” Wal-Mart historically has had a long list of applicants to draw from, so the fact that it has to advertise represents a major shift in the industry, Klemp said.
“There are not that many raising their hand saying, ‘Hey, I think it would be cool to be a driver,’” said Scott Perry, vice president of supply management for Ryder’s fleet management solutions unit. “So trying to attract more and more to the industry and also developing an industry that’s more inviting to a broader range of individuals is something that we’re very focused on.”
Other companies also are contemplating or making equipment changes to ease the load on drivers, who have a difficult-enough job even without the physical challenges.
Schneider, in Green Bay, has retrofitted all 30,000 of its trailers with a new ratchet handle that reduces the amount of strength required to raise and lower the trailer legs, said Rob Reich, senior vice president for equipment, maintenance and driver recruiting.
The big trucking and logistics firm also now has several hundred tractors with “automated manual transmissions.” These for the most part eliminate the need to shift manually, and have performed well, Reich said.
“I see that as a likely significant spec change both to our trucks, and I think in the industry as well over the next couple of years that will make the truck much more driver-friendly,” he said.
Manufacturers have been “very receptive” to taking female drivers into account, and some have made significant strides down that path, Scott Perry said.
Freightliner, the largest-selling semitrailer truck brand, has taken a number of steps to accommodate its tractors to everyone from small women to large men, product marketing director Mary Aufdemberg said.
The Portland, Oregon, manufacturer’s Cascadia line has a telescoping steering wheel, adjustable mirrors, adjustable seats and a hydraulically assisted clutch pedal, said Aufdemberg, a board member of Women in Trucking.
Features such as those have allowed both Bob and Linda Caffee — a husband-wife team standing 6-foot-4 and 5-foot-3, respectively — to drive their 2012 Cascadia without major problems, Linda said.
She and her husband, who last year racked up 146,000 miles on the road, write a blog for Freightliner.
Like Aufdemberg, Caffee is on the Women in Trucking board, and like Hartsfield-Vasquez, she’s short. But the two female truckers offered much different perspectives on their rigs.
“I am very comfortable driving this truck,” Caffee said.
Asked about Hartsfield-Vasquez’s account of having trouble seeing over the dash when she lowered her seat enough to comfortably reach the pedals, Aufdemberg said, “That’s something that we’ll continue to make sure that we’re considering each time we make improvements to our trucks.”