Pilot cars are used to ensure cargo arrives safely.
Super heavy loads can weight 150,000 pounds and can have long trailers with way more than 18 wheels. This makes it difficult to turn on a dime, stop suddenly, or move quickly when driving on urban, rural, and city streets. Oversized or over dimensional freight such as mining and wind energy equipment, because of their size, take up more than a single lane of traffic.
This heavy haul pilot car service is also called escort service, escort vehicle, flag car, pole car, pilot escort, or pilot car escort.
Heavy haul pilot cars protect
the heavy haul driver
the truck and trailer
and everyone else on the road including pedestrians
They increase safety, reduce the risk of damage or loss of the over size, over dimensional, or overweight cargo, and reduce insurance rates.
Signs and lights on pilot cars warn other drivers and pedestrians about delays and obstacles caused while oversized equipment moves along the shared roadways.
They alert the heavy haul truck driver about slow traffic, accidents, and anything else the driver needs to know to maneuver the load safely such as advise and manage switching lanes, crossing bridges, and using tunnels.
What are pilot cars?
You’ve certainly seen them on the road. Usually, pilot cars are trucks or vans with yellow signs saying “Oversized Load” or something similar. Depending on which state the driver travels there may also be steady or flashing lights and bright yellow or red flags.
State Requirements for oversize freight and heavy freight escorts
The requirements for heavy haul pilot cars vary from state to state and may require different rules depending on the load size, trailer size and weight. For instance, there may be two pilot cars, one in front and one behind the oversized, heavy haul freight and super load. This is generally when the load is wider than 14 feet.
Tall loads require that the pilot car attach a special pole to its front bumper. This high pole is set at specific heights to test underpasses, power lines, bridge overhead supports, tunnels, and any other overhead restrictions along the planned travel route. This is generally around 17 feet.
Some states require pilot car drivers to have certification. Certification typically requires a valid driver’s license, traffic control skills, drug testing, and insurance. The certificate is good for 1-4 years.
To learn more about state requirements for pilot cars check our State Permits page which also has links to each state’s permitting authority. The National Pilot Car Association has more information on state certifications.
“The U.S. pilot car certification program introduces the history and reasoning for driver safety requirements. The program details the specific regulations governing over-size loads, including the minimum driver age, vehicle standards, driver communication and curfew. The program also details the specific safety equipment, flagging, pole heights and driving techniques used in transporting over-size loads. The training program also covers communication between the driver, utility companies and police resources, including global positioning system (GPS) route-mapping techniques.” Career Trend, Pilot Car Certification, Bobby Raleigh, 12/27/18
For especially large or dangerous freight, a police escort may be required.
Equipment for pilot vehicles
Most states require basic equipment on board and sometimes spares as well for heavy haul pilot cars.
- CB radio
- Fire extinguishers
- First aid kits
- Hard hat
- Reflective triangles
- Safety Vest – Class III ANSI
- Traffic wand
In addition, some states require special insurance.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration published a guideline for heavy haul freight driver’s called Pilot Car Escort, Best Practices Guidelines. This guide includes an outline to review the pilot car escort readiness for a successful trip.
Oversize/Overweight Load Management (Movement must, at all times, be operated with regard to public safety)
A. Comply, in all respects, with the state specific vehicle movement laws
B. Comply with all permit specified requirements, restrictions and special conditions Pilot Car Escort: Best Practices Guidelines 9 SCRA Booklet 7/30/04 10:21 AM Page 16
C. Position vehicles in compliance with state regulations
D. Display flashing lights, signs and flags as required
E. Maintain sufficient team communication to promote public, team and load safety
F. Monitor and advise load driver of any malfunction of load lights, tie-down straps and chains and tire and brake problems
G. Compare team vehicle speedometer readings as necessary
H. Follow safe maneuvering techniques
I. Identify and communicate emergency situations to team
J. Advise team of additional procedures that may enhance public, team and load safety
How much does pilot car service cost?
Like most things to do with moving freight, the cost depends on many factors in addition to which state is traveled.
There are usually minimum rates and charges per mile for services. However, you may be able to negotiate for discounts for projects and multiple runs. When you use FreightMonster, the dispatcher will handle negotiation on your behalf.
Lead vehicle / chase vehicle
Super load lead vehicle / chase vehicle
Dead head miles
Next day service guarantee
No Go – ordered but not used
Additional requirements depending on the route and load
Layovers – in addition to next day service guarantee
The time and effort to make sure the conditions are safe may call for higher pilot car escort fees. Some conditions that may increase the cost include:
Narrow, two lane roads
Winding mountain roads
What does it take to become a heavy haul pilot car driver?
This work carries a lot of responsibility. The driver of a heavy load or trailer carrying oversized or over dimensional freight depends on the pilot driver to understand these responsibilities and take them seriously.
It is important to stay four miles or less from the heavy haul driver depending on the range of the CB radio or other short-range communication device used.
The pilot car driver must serve as the eyes and ears of the truck driver, acting as an early warning for both other traffic on the road and the heavy haul driver. An example of such warning is to let the truck driver know when other drivers are being careless or attempting to pass.
The escort driver must give clear directions and instructions when needed.
When situations demand action, the escort driver must be able to take command, and show a proper sense of urgency. Knowing and understanding how to direct traffic, set up cones and lights, work with local officials, use flashing lights and protect the public is essential.
The work environment includes
Hours sitting in and driving the pilot vehicle for extended periods on the road
Working outdoors with exposure to various weather conditions
Working on construction sites
Lifting fifty pounds or more
Dangerous tools and equipment
A pre-trip safety inspection of the vehicle is important. All safety tools and equipment must be kept in working condition with knowledge of how to use them. The driver must be well rested and be alert and vigilant during the entire trip.
Other skills that help the escort vehicle driver be successful are to present a professional appearance and attitude, able to get along with the public, keep records, be flexible, and have good mechanical knowledge with the ability to maintain the vehicle.
Often, a commercial driver’s license is required or proof of completion of a defensive driving course.
The idea of working independently when you choose may appeal to many, but as you can see it takes a special type of person to be successful as a pilot car driver.
Many associations and certification agencies exist for those interested in pursuing this line of work. Working for a regional or national agency is another option and there are online directories and listings.
National Pilot Car Association http://www.nationalpca.org/
Northwest Pilot Car Association http://northwestpilotcarassociation.com/
WCS Permits & Pilot Cars https://wcspermits.com/pilot-cars/
USA Oversized https://usaoversized.com/
Career Trend https://careertrend.com/how-to-become-a-flag-carpole-carescort-car-operator-13652177.html