Outrider founder and CEO Andrew Smith believes the future of efficient yard operations involves the use of autonomous yard tractors. Sometimes called terminal tractors, yard jockeys, hostlers and shuttle drivers, these workhorses of efficiency number more than 50,000 in the U.S., moving trailers from one part of the yard or distribution center to another, from dock doors to locations where a carrier can pick it up.

Outrider has landed $53 million in funding to build its autonomous yard tractor, but until solutions like this become commonplace, the traditional diesel-powered, and increasingly electric-powered, yard tractor will need a driver. And anytime a driver and a vehicle are involved, that means safety becomes a prime concern.

Most yard tractors are either single- or dual-axle single-seat vehicles and feature a hydraulic fifth wheel on a boom arm that can raise and lower the trailer. The majority of yard tractors are designed and legal for on-road use, although they don’t spend much time on roadways. Even though most yard tractors remain inside the confines of a dedicated yard, there are still risks involved with using these vehicles. And if these vehicles, with a gross combined weight rating of 26,001 pounds or greater and pulling trailers of 10,001 pounds or greater, operate on a public roadway, the yard tractor driver must be qualified, hold a commercial driver’s license, be drug tested and comply with all rules related to the Drug and Alcohol Clearinghouse, including the reporting of all violations, and all Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) would apply to both the drivers and vehicles.

A CDL is not required for yard tractors that are operated within the confines of the truck and trailer yard, although a skilled driver should be employed for the tasks so that safety is never compromised.

Training and inspections

Because yard tractor drivers must meet the same criteria as over-the-road drivers when operating on a public roadway, fleets need to ensure these professionals are properly trained, continually updated on new policies and treated the same as their over-the-road drivers. Additional training, regardless of closed yard or on-road operations, needs to include areas that are specific to yard tractors. These include:

Primary controls such as steering, braking and transmission gear selection.
Secondary controls such as lights, mirrors, wipers, defroster, horn, hydraulic fifth wheel and boom, and the cab-tilt system.
Vehicle instruments including, but not limited to, the speedometer, odometer, tachometer, fuel gauge, voltmeter, ammeter, air-pressure gauge, coolant and oil temperature gauges, and vehicle alarms/warnings.

“Skilled yard drivers are invaluable in maintaining yard efficiency and avoiding costly damage to vehicles,” said Dustin Kufahl, director of the driver training program at J. J. Keller & Associates Inc. “More and more fleets are choosing our Safe & Smart Driver Training Program specifically to minimize these risks.”

Kufahl noted that improper training can lead to safety risk, including vehicle tip-over if the driver corners too quickly with the boom lifted or is driving too fast. Other common risks include backing into or striking objects or vehicles due to not looking at the surroundings, incidents with pedestrians walking through the yards and poor visibility at night in dimly lit yards.

Yard drivers also need to be properly trained on inspection basics, including pre-trip and post-trip inspections. This would include a complete vehicle walk-around and inspection of key components such as lights, windshield, mirrors, tires and rims/hubs, brakes, frame, drive line, shocks, mud flaps, fifth wheel, air tanks, hydraulic fluid reservoir, cab-latch mechanism, battery compartment, fuel and fluid levels including diesel exhaust fluid, handholds, and the catwalk.

Post-trip inspections should include any required reports, including a Driver Vehicle Inspection Report if a defect is found, and if the vehicle travels on a roadway open to public travel.

Additional training related to basic controls for forward motion, maneuvering and backing are necessary as well. These include:

Starting the engine, releasing the brakes and putting the vehicle in motion. It must include verifying air pressure and that brakes are functional. 
Turning and maneuvering to avoid tip-overs and collisions.
Dealing with yard hazards such as cross traffic, narrow clearances, tight cornering and pedestrians.
Backing, docking and parking. This includes general guidelines and safe practices of backing and parking; techniques for straight-line backing, sight-side and blindside backing, curved and offset backing; and loading dock safety.

Finally, yard drivers need to train on proper inspection of the fifth wheel, positioning the vehicle for proper coupling and connecting/uncoupling and disconnecting, and operating on a public roadway (requires setting the manual locking pin on kingpin locking jaws).

“Hands-on training is essential for helping yard drivers truly understand how to operate safely,” said Kufahl. “That’s why we designed J. J. Keller’s Safe & Smart Driver Training Program to include a range of scenarios that give drivers the opportunity to apply their newfound knowledge, skills and behaviors in a safe, closed-course environment supervised by our instructors.”

Yard driver safety

The final component of proper yard jockey driver training is safety training. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not provide regulations for yard trucks when the vehicle is designed for road use, which is most of the models available today, but OSHA’s general duty clause does apply if an employer fails to keep an employee safe, Kufahl noted.

The Powered Industrial Truck regulation applies only in instances when the yard truck is designed specifically for off-road use, such as those designed for port-only operations.

OSHA does require chocks anytime a vehicle is loading under regulation 1910.178(k)(1) and (m)(7)). However, according to J. J. Keller, the agency rarely enforces its chocking/locking requirement for commercial motor vehicles (CMV) operating in interstate commerce, but it issued a compliance directive that essentially allows for use of mechanical means to lock the truck to the dock. J. J. Keller said OSHA considers the use of dock locks instead of chocks a “de minimis violation,” meaning it is a minor violation with no consequences or fines.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) also claims jurisdiction, noting that its parking brake standard for use applies for CMVs anytime they are loading or unloading. Finally, some states have their own approved OSHA plans that may have different standards that are not automatically preempted by DOT.

Yard drivers are also not immune to on-the-job injuries. Some common injuries include catching hands in pinch points, slips and falls, slipping off the yard truck and muscle strains. To help protect themselves, yard drivers should utilize high-visibility vests, gloves, eye and head protection, proper footwear, hearing protection if necessary, masks if needed and cold-weather gear.

The drivers who are responsible for moving trailers around yards are key cogs in the efficient operation of freight operations, but they are sometimes forgotten. They fall under many of the same regulations as on-road drivers, though, and face many unique situations that may require additional training. Getting the necessary help from outside specialists like J. J. Keller to ensure that training is accurate and up to date is part of any successful fleet safety program.