Gearing Up For the Long Haul

For septic service drivers, it’s time to hone those skills necessary to safely transport heavy liquid loads

Gearing Up For the Long Haul

  The newest money maker for Gorham Septic Service is a 2020 Western Star with a 4,000-gallon aluminum tank built by Imperial Industries. The truck features a Challenger 887 pump from National Vacuum Equipment. 

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It’s sunny springtime and I recently completed a cross-country driving trip, logging about 5,000 miles on our interstate expressways and smaller state and two-lane county roads, sharing the asphalt with thousands of skilled, professional truck drivers hauling everything from giant windmill blades to double trailers of FedEx packages.

I witnessed all sorts of safe and questionable driving practices and, for the most part, a good awareness and cooperation between the drivers of the big rigs and family haulers like mine. But in the midst of this long adventure, a story about a crash involving a member of the pumping community reminded me how important it is to review best safety practices for contractors who transport septic waste for a living.

The dateline was Orlando, Florida, where a pumper running a load of septage down Interstate 4 crashed into a semitruck, setting off a chain reaction collision when the semi rear-ended a compact car. According to many news accounts, the 41-year-old pumper’s truck went out of control, left the highway, rolled over and struck a light pole. He was seriously injured and his passenger was also hurt. The drivers of the semi and the car were treated at the scene.

This is every pumper’s nightmare, causing a crash that threatened harm to motorists, resulting in massive property damage, and taking a vital work truck off the road at a busy time of the year for wastewater haulers. Making matters worse, it seems like this was probably a preventable disaster.


When I read a story like this one, I usually flash back more than a decade when I first saw a video, “Cargo Tank Driver Rollover Prevention,” produced by the National Tank Truck Carriers and the American Trucking Association in cooperation with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. That video reinforced many important safety messages and reminded me that the liquid loads pumpers carry require some of the most skilled driving techniques of anyone steering a heavy truck down the road.

May is a great month to review safe driving practices for pumpers. Most of you are gearing up for the busiest time of the year transporting load after load to the treatment plant. And it seems doubly important these days coming out of the COVID funk that kept our highway traffic light for a couple of years. As my recent trip proved to me, travelers are back with a vengeance, and it takes all of us to keep everyone safe.

That safety video is still floating around on the internet, and the message is just as important as ever. In this post of the video on YouTube,, a driver with 38 years of experience transporting gasoline summed up the best advice. Robert Weller, senior cargo driver for Hahn Transportation in Maryland, said tank truck drivers must “start every trip with a total focus on arriving safely at the destination. We must be constantly aware of our surroundings and with an eye on what might change next.”

As described in the video, let’s review four types of risk factors encountered by liquid load carriers:

Vehicle design

Vacuum trucks carrying a load have a high center of gravity that leads to instability entering turns or making sudden shifts or movements. Though baffled tanks help offset stability issues, speed, sharpness of turns and roadway banking can still shift a load dramatically when hitting a turn. Sudden braking will surge liquid forward, causing instability and lengthen stopping. The key to overcoming these challenges is taking it slow and avoiding sudden movements of any kind.

Load effects

Drivers who have rolled a rig will say the shifting load was the cause. But the video points out that the truck is only reacting to the inputs from the driver and a greater ability to predict load reaction is the way to avoid disaster. Drivers must manage speed and adapt to road and weather conditions. And remember that partial loads are more unpredictable than full loads. In fact, 94% of rollovers happen when the truck is carrying a partial load, which intensifies slosh and surge in the tank. Rollovers are most often caused by excessive speed, sudden braking and maneuvers, and load distribution.

Highway factors

For liquid loads, it’s even more important to familiarize yourself with the route. Don’t get complacent on routes you frequently run; review the challenging sections of road regularly and share your observations with other drivers. Survey new routes, looking for factors such as sharp curves, steep downhill grades, soft shoulders, narrow driveways and areas of limited visibility that would reduce your eye-lead times for hills and turns. A good tip for controlling speed is watching for those recommended speed signs on curves and dropping your speed by 10 mph. As the video states, those speed signs are meant for more nimble cars, not tanker trucks.

Driver factors

So much of trucking safety relies on the fitness and attention of the driver. The experts say you should know the capabilities of your rig inside-out. And never leave the yard before completing a thorough pre-trip inspection. Then you must avoid the most common unsafe behaviors, including speeding, mobile phone use, fatigue, driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol, eating in the cab and daydreaming. Be mindful of physical problems, mental distractions. Common factors in rollover crashes include tailgating, road rage, failure to plan ahead for turns, lane changes and braking.  


Working in the wastewater industry, I always notice vacuum trucks as I drive down the highway. Maybe more than the average motorist, I understand the challenges pump truck drivers face and have a healthy respect toward risks outlined in the video. I wish I could convey this message to the rest of the motoring public so they would watch out for you on your daily routes.

Through skills honed over time, vacuum truck drivers can make a difficult job appear easy. But I know you have to constantly work at it.

Latonya Jones, a driver featured in the video, shared an important message about a close call she had carrying a liquid load. It’s a valuable reminder as you head into the busy season.

“I kind of felt the trailer tilt a little bit because of the speed that I was going,” she said. “It made me very alert of all of my surroundings, and looking ahead instead of being too comfortable. You can never be too comfortable.”


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