Nuisance Tow Truck Maintenance and Unsung Mechanics

Oct 12th, 2012 | By | Category: Nick Kemper's Blog

I used to have dreams. I suppose I still do. One of my dreams when I was a tow truck driver and a tow truck manager was the dream of an effective and efficient fleet maintenance department. Now that I’ve been away from the daily grind for awhile, I look back and think I was a little bit impatient with the fleet maintenance teams I worked with. Working on vehicles is an inexact science. Sometimes it’s more of an art.

Tow truck drivers are notoriously hard on their equipment (thank goodness, for our business’ sake). Let’s face it: drivers trash equipment. Not me, personally, but drivers I worked with and who worked for me, did. They break stuff and don’t tell you, neglect to check fluid levels, force the equipment to do stuff it’s not designed to do, and keep right on going until complete failure occurs. It reminds me of that scene in the Blues Brothers when they throw a rod in their old cop car and Dan Aykroyd just leans out and wipes the oil off the windshield so John Belushi can see to keep on driving.

As far as I was concerned, truck maintenance was always a nuisance. I was a commission driver, and when you are a commission driver (if you want to make any money) anything that takes time away from towing cars is a hindrance to the ability to be productive. Doing a pre-trip inspection, for instance, was a big time-killer. I didn’t even want to take the time to check off the boxes on the pre-trip form, so I drew lines down through them. I’ll confess that I almost never actually did a complete pre-trip inspection. I usually drove my assigned truck every work shift, and our equipment was usually fairly new, so it was easy to pick up on problems. That’s no excuse. You never know what kind of damage or delay you will prevent by doing the complete inspection.

The most common delay you will prevent, ironically, has nothing to do with equipment failure or malfunction. It has to do with equipment disappearance. Tow truck drivers are also notorious borrowers, and if you don’t check out your truck before heading out on the road, especially if there’s been at least a 45-minute gap between the last time someone else drove it and the start of your shift, you might get to your first call and find that you have no tow lights, or no dollie activator bar, or no air in your air tank, or no lug wrench, or no wheel-lift straps.

I’ve seen a lot of strategies for the prevention of borrowing, but the best one I’ve seen was a driver who painted all of the “liftable” equipment on his assigned truck pink, or at least part of it pink. It wasn’t distasteful-looking, but it was a dead giveaway if you were nailed with something pink on your truck, and many of the other drivers found it distasteful to be associated with the color pink.

The other thing about fleet maintenance that drivers might not know about, that I became aware of when I moved into management, is limitations placed on them by ownership. There is usually a push, as in most expense-category departments, to keep costs down. So you, the driver, might draw up your wish list that includes re-chroming wheels and ultra-high-intensity fog lights, but you get your truck back and your stinger is still bleeding off. That may be because the owner doesn’t want to fork out $1,400 for a new cylinder, and while they’re waiting for a seal kit to ship regular ground in four days, they need the unit back on the road, generating income. Also, it might be why you’re driving a truck with 283,000 miles instead of a brand-new unit. The message: don’t shoot the messenger. If the mechanic is a good soldier, he’s doing everything he can with whatever he has to make your truck as safe and effective as possible, and he’s doing it efficiently and effectively, and he’s not bellyaching about the boss not wanting to spend money. And when he’s done with your truck, he’s on to the next job and doesn’t have time to sit down and have a therapy session with you about your disillusionment.

Mechanics are unsung assets is what I’m saying. No one sings songs recounting their heroic deeds. You, the driver, get all of the glory. You are out on the street, saving the damsel in distress, smiling for the marketing photo that ends up on the company website, driving around with overhead lights just like the police, and rest assured, someone somewhere sang something about you at some point, meaning you are sung, not unsung. So, when you step up to the podium, give some props to the guy who changed the belt when it was 105 degrees out, or at least cut him some slack when the water cooler talk turns ugly.

The first fleet maintenance supervisor I worked with was Phil, a very type-A, verbally-demonstrative mechanic who was passionate about his work. If you called into question the quality of his work, you’d better be able to back it up — physically if necessary. He was extremely knowledgeable. In fact, if you asked a casual question about a safety check he was doing, you could get a 3-hour dissertation on hairline cracks in dollie frames. This tendency to be able to stop his work process at any time to engage in long, drawn-out discussions is something I’ve witnessed a lot in the automotive industry, and it was one reason why jobs seemed to take a long time for Phil to complete.

The last tow truck mechanic I worked closely with was Victor, a Russian immigrant with nine kids. There were frequent language barrier problems with Victor, which I think he actually played up from time to time when it served him. When I left that company to go to work for TPN, he handed me a note with a bible verse on it. I thought that was kind of strange, until I came home, dug out a Bible and looked up the verse, which said something like (basically), “Get me the h… out of here.”

It might have been the job he was trying to escape, or tow truck drivers. Who knows?

Have a safe and profitable week.

Nick Kemper

www.TowPartsNow.com