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What Does Deadhead Mean in Trucking?

When you drop off a load and you either return home or drive to the next pick-up location, the miles you are driving are known as deadhead miles. Deadhead trucking or deadhead miles refer to the miles truckers travel with an empty trailer. 

Deadhead’s meaning is simple. You drop off a load and you don’t have another to pick up from the drop-off location, so you have to return with an empty trailer. This can be both costly and unsafe for drivers to experience. 

Some companies compensate for deadhead miles, but with owner-operators, reducing deadhead miles is essential to remaining profitable. Keep reading to learn all about how deadhead miles work and how deadhead miles can affect truckers.

How Do Deadhead Miles Work in Trucking?

In trucking, deadhead miles are the miles driven with an empty trailer or flatbed still attached to the truck. It’s usually inevitable to drive deadhead miles when you’re on your way to pick up a load. 

For instance, if you drop off a load in Washington State and you have to spend deadhead miles traveling back to Nebraska, the cost of the fuel alone will likely cut into your profits. There are also safety concerns to consider when driving with an empty trailer for long distances.  

Do Trucking Companies Pay For Deadhead Miles?

Some trucking companies pay for deadhead miles. Those companies will usually pay $0.60 to $0.90 per deadhead mile, which allows truckers to remain profitable. 

For example, C.R. England pays $0.80 per deadhead mile for independent contractors. However, owner-operators need to consider the cost of deadhead miles or fill the miles with another pick-up order.

How Do You Calculate Deadheads?

To calculate deadhead miles, you need to subtract paid miles from the total miles driven. The remaining miles are known as deadhead miles. 

How Can You Reduce Deadhead Miles?

Truckers can reduce deadhead miles by using load boards or trucking apps to find new loads that are close in proximity to their drop-off points. This saves time for truckers while increasing their income and their efficiency. 

Some truckers are able to schedule pick-ups immediately after drop-offs so that their whole trip is planned and their deadhead miles are minimized. On the other hand, drivers might choose to look for new loads nearby while they’re already on the go. 

Example of Deadhead Trucking

Deadhead in trucking simply involves driving with an empty trailer. If a driver has a load for drop off in Little Rock, Arkansas, and the driver’s home base is in Raleigh, North Carolina, the total miles driven would be approximately 1,772 miles. 

Of those miles, half of them, or 886 miles, are paid miles. The driver will have 886 deadhead trucking miles to travel. But, instead of driving that many deadhead miles, the driver could look at a load board and find a load in Nashville, Tennessee, that needs to be dropped off in Raleigh, then the deadhead miles for the trip would be 349 deadhead trucking miles.

How Deadheading Affects Truckers

Deadheading affects the safety, well-being and financial bottom line of truckers. Here’s how truckers can feel the impact of deadhead miles.

Risky Driving Behavior

Deadhead trucking can be dangerous. Without having to worry about a load, truckers may end up driving over the speed limit or not paying enough attention as they rush to get to their next load. The goal is to not waste time or money, but this can lead to risky driving behaviors that put the truck, the driver and other people on the road at risk. 

Unsafe Weather Conditions

Weather can wreak havoc on empty trailers. Without the weight of a load, empty trailers can be pulled or fishtailed, especially with the presence of strong winds, rain or snow. 

Overpasses and other places that are prone to gusts of wind or icy conditions are especially dangerous. Pulling light loads or no loads at all can be extremely unsafe for drivers. 

It can put them in a position where drivers have to avoid bridges and take alternative routes in order to stay safe. But how dangerous are these situations? The answer is very dangerous. 

Just like sailboats, trucks have a wide sail area. This makes them prone to wind interference. A 53-foot truck can have a sail area of 500 square feet, and strong winds that are not a hazard for passenger cars can still flip an empty trailer. 

Undertrained Drivers

Drivers are trained to haul loads, not empty trailers. An empty trailer doesn’t pull or respond to weather the way a loaded trailer does. A driver’s lack of training in conditions where they are pulling empty loads can be dangerous, even in the best conditions.

Drivers can increase safety in empty trailers in the following ways:

  • Knowing the truck’s sail area
  • Securing loose items and doors
  • Always performing the FMCSR pre-trip inspection
  • Reducing speeds to mitigate wind force 
  • Observing road signs and landmarks 
  • Noticing dangerous or high-wind areas
  • Slowing down or pulling over
  • Waiting for the storm to blow over 

Wasting Time and Money

No one wants to waste time or money. Deadhead miles often cause exactly that, especially for owner-operators. When truckers travel during deadhead mileage periods, they end up wasting time with empty loads, which means they’re not getting paid yet they’re simultaneously paying for fuel. 

As of October 2022, the cost of diesel in the U.S. is as high as $5.30 per gallon. So, with a vehicle that travels five miles per gallon, truckers can end up paying upwards of $106 per 100 miles, which is a waste when it is spent on deadhead trucking miles.

What Is the Difference Between Bobtail and Deadhead?

Bobtail trucking is when a truck without a load or a trailer is moved from one location to another. Like a bobtail cat, which has a tail that is cut short, the truck is only made up of the cab, not the trailer. 

Deadhead is a term that also includes moving empty vehicles that have a trailer attached. Neither bobtail trucking nor deadhead trucking are great for your bottom line, but deadhead trucking presents additional safety risks. 

However, you’ll need to get bobtail insurance if you regularly drive a bobtail. This is because standard insurance often doesn’t cover bobtail trucking. 

Final Thoughts on Deadhead Trucking

With such a vast number of free or low-cost load boards available to truckers today, there’s no reason to drive long distances with an empty trailer. Here are some suggestions for the best load board for truckers.

If you can, book your loads in advance and plan your route to optimize loads as well as paid miles, thereby avoiding deadhead trucking. Whether you’re an owner-operator or you work for a company, it pays to be proactive and pick up loads, not only for your safety but for the bottom line as well. 

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