Ace Your DMV Written Test with our Guaranteed Cheat Sheet.
Cheat Sheet

The Ultimate Pre-Trip Hacks for New Truck Drivers

As a new commercial driver, you’ll learn quickly that driving the truck is the easiest part of the job. Rolling forward and working the gears goes much faster than pushing that trailer back to a dock. Let alone logging all the inspections, hours of service, bills of lading, and other records. They’re a necessary time-suck. No one likes them. We all gotta do them.

The good news is that time and familiarity will build your skills. & right now, when your cdl is shiny and new, is the time to develop good habits. These will make you more efficient, more accurate, and more safe in your safety-sensitive profession!

This is especially true of vehicle inspections. You’re required to do them at least twice a run, at the beginning and end of your day. The checklist is long, but with time, it will become routine.

Your State of Mind, the Biggest Hack of All

  1. You are the Captain of the Ship. Tickets, damage, accidents. Those will be on you, not the dispatcher who pushes you to skip the pre-trip, drive on the worn tires, or avoid the scale house because your load is overweight. Get comfortable saying, “No.” Don’t push yourself to skip steps or overlook issues with your truck.
  2. Take it slow and easy, especially in the first months. The thing is, there will always be another load, another client, another emergency. Develop good habits that will become your personal signature. Plan it, perform it, adjust it, perfect it, repeat it. Again and again until your inspection process is complete and ingrained.
  3. You got this, MacGyver. Load a work bag with the tools you’ll need. Come prepared to observe, record and make the easy repairs. Do this to slash the time and effort of the inspection and support the goal – a safe and legal vehicle.

Your Bag of Tricks

  • Tactical flashlight
  • Well-fitting, all-weather gloves
  • Rite-in-the-Rain® notebook (with a pen)
  • Paper shop towels
  • Multi-tool
  • Phone with a camera
  • Fifth-wheel pin pull
  • Heavy duty, dual-head tire gauge
  • Tire tread depth gauge
  • Telescoping inspection mirror
  • Grease pencils
  • Safety glasses
  • Rand McNally OverDryve Pro®

Tactical flashlight: think indestructible with 1000+ lumens. When you’re standing by your battery box at 3am in an icy rain and shining a light under the cab, you want a flashlight that lights up the scene. Small, hand-held and inexpensive are good points to consider, too. While headlamps have their uses, a hand-held can be directed quickly and flexibly.

Well-fitting, all-weather gloves: think protection and comfort. If your gloves are too thick or too large, they will create a hazard. If they don’t repel water and oil, they will create a hazard. If they don’t cinch to your wrists, they will create a hazard. You get the picture. Chances are, if they hinder your work, you’ll stop using them. With quality gloves, you can work better in cold and heat, increase your grip and reduce your risk of injury. Invest in a good pair of gloves.

Rite-in-the-Rain® notebook: all-weather paper will let you record your observations while you inspect your truck, even in bad weather. This is an Oregon product, so of course it’s made to handle water without tearing or becoming soggy.  With an all-weather notepad, a pen, a camera phone and a grease pencil, you can record a problem and point the technician right to it. Once you’re in your truck, you can complete a clean DVIR.

Paper shop towels: a roll of blue shop towels beats a handful of red shop rags. You’re working with oil, fuel, grime, road crud and mystery goop all day and night. With strong, but disposable towels you can check your oil, wipe the crud off the transmission fluid window, and clean off your hands. After 2 or 3 uses, a shop rag is going to be covered in greasy, hazardous stuff you don’t want in your bag.

Multi-tool: sure, you can carry screw drivers, box cutters, hammers, and the like. But a multi-tool will meet almost all your needs. When inspecting your truck, you may need to pry out a loose tail light or tighten a screw. You’ll definitely need to pull nails and debris from your tires, then check for leaks. (Well-placed spit can help you look for escaping air.) Several companies, including Gerber®, make a quality pocket-tool with the knife, screw driver, and plyers you need.

Okay, so far our ‘essentials’ can fit in a pocket. With these, you can see to work, record your observations and make quick repairs.

Here are a few other tools to boost your efficiency and accuracy: a fifth-wheel pin pull (that can double as a tire thumper). Your neck and shoulders will thank you, especially if you are working with older equipment. A heavy duty, dual-head tire gauge that can reach behind a tire and between the duals. A tire tread depth gauge – small and cheap, it takes out the guess work of, “Is this at 4/32nds? 2/32nds?” A telescoping inspection mirror – for the places where you can’t crane your head or twist your body.

Little Things to Think About

Bright grease pencils are useful for marking the places you want your technician to look at. For example, you can place a yellow arrow on a sidewall that points to the nail in your tread, or a circle around a crack forming in a leaf spring. Simple. Exact. Brilliant.

If you have an assigned truck (and won’t you be lucky if you do), consider stashing a few items in your cab, such as basic spare parts, especially lights and fuses. A jug of wiper fluid. Glass cleaner. These will reduce your down-time, especially if issues arise on the road. You never know when a scale-house inspector may ‘down’ your truck for a simple-to-fix broken tail light, leaving you to wait hours for road service. (It has happened to us!)

Enjoy Electronics? These can help you inspect and monitor your rig.

Tire pressure monitoring system: this is a valuable electronic tool, especially for over the road drivers. When you’re out on I-80 in eastern Wyoming and the sidewall of a rear dual opens up, you won’t feel it in the cab. A monitor could alert you to it before more damage occurs. (This, too, has happened to us!)

Rand McNally offers the best reasonably-priced electronic tools for commercial drivers, in our opinion. At last check, their OverDryve Pro line offered their most complete package of navigation, e-log, dashcam, and connectivity tools at a price-point that won’t cause too much pain.

Which leads to a nod to electronic DVIRs. Numerous DVIR apps are available, ranging from free to cost-prohibitive. Major carriers have their own systems for recording your inspections, and some come with hand-held options. On the plus side, the company pays for these tools.

On the minus side, electronic DVIRs can be hard to use and slow down your inspection. Instead of spending just enough time to observe and then note any concerns, you often need to check off all the inspected items, even the okay items. Reliance on a checklist like this can slow down your process, plus increase your reliance on lists rather than a much faster computer – your brain. You are also taking an electronic device outside in all sorts of weather, an expensive loss if you damage your device.

We don’t discourage electronic DVIRs, but at this point, we don’t see them as a hack you should invest in for a smooth, quick inspection. Any day now, the technology will arrive in an affordable package, so keep on the look-out for it!   

And Another Thing, Before You Even Start the Inspection

If you are lucky enough to have an assigned truck or a fleet of uniform vehicles, read the manuals. Literally dozens of tricks, tips, suggestions and insights are contained in your machine’s manuals. You may have switches that assist with breaking from your trailer. An obscure switch to a lamp that illuminates your air lines and rear platform. Even inspection-assists, which we talk about next.

The Ultimate Hack: Good Habits, NOW

Up, down, right, left. Standing in front of the truck, then beside the driver door, then beside the rear axle, then…

Or maybe you start by checking your marker lights, head lights, turn signals, and so on …

Whatever pattern you create, you should practice and shape until it is complete, accurate and ingrained. With this one simple habit, you are going to reduce the time spent on inspections and the risk of missing something important. You need to be safe and legal on the road. You need to enter the scales with confidence. Right here, with the habits you form, is where that begins.

External walk-around, under the hood or inside the cab? What do you inspect cold? What needs time to warm up?

Thankfully, only a few items you inspect need to happen cold or hot, before or after something else. You have a lot of flexibility. Engine oil, coolant and belts you should check cold. Automatic transmission fluid is checked warm with the engine running.

Since the hot and cold checks take place under the hood, many commercial drivers will begin instead with lights, body and the external walk around. Flashlight, notebook, pen, multi-tool, camera phone, marker – use these to observe and record. Do not try to remember your observations to record ‘later.’ You’ll waste time and you’ll forget specifics.

If you’re a solo driver, you’ll appreciate that most modern trucks have a switch for testing your lights. As you walk around, your lights will go through a cycle that includes high and low beams, right and left turn signals, brakes and flashers. However, this doesn’t include back-up lights.

Back-up lights. Ideally, another person can spot you (while you put the truck in reverse) to let you know the lights are working. Probably, that’s not going to happen.

So, what can you do? Turn the key so you have electronic power, but don’t turn on the engine. Put your truck in reverse with your parking brake ON. Exit the truck and take a look. If it’s dark, cold and rainy, you can try to back your truck close enough to a wall or dock to look in your side mirrors for the bright, white light of your reverse lamps. You can even use a wall to check your other back-end lights, all from the comfort of the cab.

And what about the trucks that don’t have a switch for light tests? You’re stuck returning to the cab again and again to turn on your high beams, your low beams. To turn on your right signal, your left. Your flashers. Each time, making another walk around. A small hack: combine inspection elements – for example your high beams And right turn signal check, low beams And left signal. Every combined step is time saved.

For your brake lights, you need a hack to depress the brake pedal. Something heavy, like your work bag. Perhaps you can wedge your fifth-wheel pull bar between the seat and pedal. Be careful that nothing slips, that your air brakes are ON, that your engine is Off, and that you stay alert to dangers.

“Wait, I’m Supposed to Inspect a Lot More than This.”

Leaking, low, worn, loose, cracked, broken, missing.

Leaking, low, worn, loose, cracked, broken, missing.

Take it slow. Work methodically. Use all your senses to see the missing pieces, hear and smell the leaks, touch the equipment. (We don’t recommend tasting stuff. That’s inviting a phone call to poison control.)

There’s a lot involved in the conscientious, professional inspection of your rig.  We’ve covered tools and hacks that will help you hone your skills. Notice that these are tools and tips many drivers use, but that we have not included all that is involved in your twice-daily practice.

Hopefully, we’ve given you a few ideas that help you outfit yourself as Captain of the Ship. The right tools will improve the quality of your work. The right habits will develop your professional identity.

Remember, your new cdl is yours to protect. Inspection failures can add negative points to your license and limit your employment options. A clean license is job gold. Respect yourself. Respect the truck. Keep your dispatchers in check. Take the time you need. Don’t let yourself get pushed. There will always be another load, another crisis, another driver, another, another. … So have some fun and do some good work. You got this.

A few of the other tools we’ve mentioned

Telescoping inspection mirror

Tire gauge – digital display, heavy duty, dual-direction

Safety glasses

Need a Hack to boost your upper body strength? Torque is your friend with this fifth wheel pin and slider pull