9 Clues to Solving the Mystery of the Pilot Car

Pilot car with load 5.18 metres high and 4.27 metres wide.

You may have spotted pilot cars –  half ton pickups (typically) that escort trucks hauling gigantic loads like houses, bridge girders, windmill blades and parts of industrial plants.

But did you know how they work (and how to work with them), as they help move over-size loads safely to their destination? Here’s an overview…

Pilot cars guide you, the load and the load’s driver and you so that everyone gets to their destination safely.

They work with and transport drivers as a team, staying connected by radio, as the pilot advises the truck driver of conditions all around them. There may be one or many pilot cars accompanying the load, and they may travel at the front, rear or side of the enormous load, or in mix of positions. Loads can be a crushing 91 tonnes or the length of an Olympic swimming pool. They might be extra tall or super wide, and authorized to travel only during certain times.

Motorists might react with uncertainty, confusion or frustration when they come upon a huge load occupying much of a road. Pilot cars warn them (gently) of what’s ahead. (Think of how nightmarish it would be on a dark and stormy night, to suddenly see a gargantuan load coming straight at you!) But the pilot car alerts motorists that something big is coming and gives them time to slow down.

9 Ways to Work with Pilot Cars and Drive Safely Near Big Loads

  1.  Give pilot cars and oversize loads lots of space.
    This is the overarching principle for whenever you are around a pilot car.
  2. Give pilot cars and oversize loads lots of space. Yes, we’ve told you that already, but here are some reasons why…
    Some oversize loads need the whole road. Even when there is more than one lane of travel in your direction, there may be obstructions on the side of the road like barricades, vehicles pulled over, pedestrians or bridge railings. So never “hang out” driving beside the oversize load, and never position yourself at the back corner of the load to get a better look. You create a dangerous situation by preventing the commercial transport driver from making lane changes or avoiding roadside obstructions. They may also need to suddenly slow down.
  3. Be patient and don’t tailgate the pilot car.
    Pilot cars often make quick lane changes; or suddenly slow down or speed up, to guide the load around an unexpected situation. Sometimes they may not even have a chance to signal. Tailgating a pilot car creates a frustrating lack of buffer zone for the pilot car driver, and that could end up going all wrong for you. Pilot cars might appear to be blocking an empty lane when travelling beside a load, not allowing you to pass, but they may be doing that to ensure the load has extra room to turn a corner or they are aware of a situation ahead.
    Blue River
  4. Watch the pilot car for cues.
    If a pilot car switches lanes suddenly to prevent you from overtaking the load, it’s for a good reason. Hang back for an extra bit of time while the oversize load navigates the road – that’s far better than being in a crash.
  5. Let the pilot car know you understand.
    When a load is oncoming, slow down and prepare to move to the shoulder if necessary. Turn on your four-way flashers to show the pilot car and load driver that you grasp the situation. (And that you get Tip #1 about staying clear and letting them do their work.)
  6. Obey the pilot car’s stop sign.
    At a bridge, a pilot may put out a stop sign, flash their head lights, turn on four-way hazard flashers or honk their horn, to get your attention. This means a heavy haul needs to use the whole bridge. Pull over and wait. That way you won’t have to back up, looking awkward and sheepish.
  7. Don’t follow a pilot car that is passing their oversize load.
    In the daytime, most oversize loads travel with just one pilot car. When the road reduces to one lane in the direction of travel, the pilot moves to the front of the load to warn oncoming traffic. The timing is critical because the manoeuvre is done near the end of the multi-lane, and the oversize load adjusts its position on the road as the lane ends. If you are speeding up behind to follow the pilot car, you are taking a huge chance. Wait for the next safe passing area on a two-lane stretch.
  8. Keep moving and give the load a lot of space when passing (a variation on Tip #1).
    On a multi-lane highway, once the pilot signals and drops back behind a load, that’s your cue to pass. Wait for a clear path of travel. Be sure you can see the truck’s head lights in your rear view mirror, before pulling back into the lane. Being too close to the truck puts you in the driver’s blind spot – a major danger zone. It takes big trucks about eight times longer to stop than a personal vehicle, which means that they can’t react as quickly, if you need to suddenly stop or slow.
  9. Be flexible and patient
    A pilot car’s work is shaped by many factors. It’s different in the city, weather changes things drastically, and day or night affects the move, along with the amount of traffic and whether the load is travelling uphill, downhill or along curves. Pilot cars adapt to conditions as they guide the load, and they need that same flexibility and safety consciousness from you. So, one last time for Tip #1 – give them plenty of leeway.

Pilot cars play a big role in getting massive loads along our roads. You can help them by following their cues and these tips, to keep everyone safe.

Our big thanks to pilot Jeannine MacKinnon for her huge contribution of knowledge, sharing the perspectives of different road users and for some well-crafted words that we used in this blog. (And for being one of our regular Twitter contacts.)

Jeannine MacKinnon Pilot Car Driver
Jeannine MacKinnon

Our appreciation also goes to Paul Byford, for suggesting we produce pilot car safety information, then contributing valuable tips.

 

45 comments on “9 Clues to Solving the Mystery of the Pilot Car”

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  1. This information should be added to the learn to drive smart book issued by ICBC. Their information on pilot cars is totally useless in helping an inexperienced driver understand how or why pilot cars do things.

    Reply
  2. Well done folks. There is not enough information out there to help the everyday driver understand what they need to do around pilots and over dimensional loads. Keep it up please

    Randy Saueracker
    Canadian Pilot Truck Training
    Edmonton AB

    Reply
  3. Cb’s are very much affected by solar flares, and geography.
    Here in BC, CB’s won’t reach across the median it seems. VHF is the only way to go.

    On another note, all this information/training etc for pilot cars is good….but when the hell is this sort of thing gonna happen for truck drivers?
    We have graduated licensing for cars, but if you have a day off, some spare change, and a pulse, you can get a class 1!
    There’s been promises made after Humbolt, I fear the bar will be set too low. (Again)

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  4. I know this is a bit off track but you may have some kind of ‘push’ in adjusting the requirements for pilot cars required on Hwy 37 (north to Watson Lake from BC). Mega pieces of this Hwy are treacherous & the use of pilot cars needs to be revamped. . .stricter regs are necessary. . .

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  5. Why not institute a classroom type course for Drivers/Operators like Alberta does?
    If you pass the test, you qualify.

    It’s not a “learn as you go” process. Once you receive your license it’s proof that you passed a requirement test qualifying you to to escort oversize loads.

    Reply
    • Hi Lucien,

      We shared your comment with the CVSE and they informed us that BC is starting with guidelines, as it is a new program. Once the new system is up and operating, and we have had a chance to adjust anything that needs adjusting, then if industry would like to see this move forward into a training program and there are suitable trainers interested in delivering the training, we’ll be very happy to explore that possibility.

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  6. Wow! 4 years on and still nothing.
    It appears the New West Partnership is still waiting for BC to finish their pilot car safety review.
    Introduction of regulatory changes and making provisions for new technologies is still in the wind.
    CVSE has appointed a New Director and Deputy Director, along with a New ADM in the drivers seat, and each time there is a political change we move backward, not forward…
    When are we going to see regulated training and certification for pilot car drivers and clearer regulations on the do’s and don’t aspects in law.
    To make your industry safer and more legitimate, weed out the night riders and incompetents making it harder for the good pilots to operate, not to mention raising the rates through professional qualifications, you need to continue to canvas for formal training and certification to come to this industry.
    Good luck all!

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  7. Best article I have read on Pilot Car Industry. I think it should be incorporated into the Young Drivers or for that mater into the Drivers Exam!. Most drivers do not know what all those flashing lights mean, Its only for their safety. I have been doing Pilot Car work for 13 years, “scary as hell some days” Very Good Article,job well done Dave

    Reply
    • Hi Dave,

      Thank you so much for this glowing feedback. We aim to be useful in the content we create for you and it sounds like this blog did the job!

      Reply
  8. This was the best article I’ve read. Thank you so much. We pilot drivers
    Need all the help we can get from the driving public.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the kudos, Alice. Really appreciated. We’re really glad you enjoyed it and think it could be useful.

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  9. Thank you so very much for taking time to inform the general motoring public of the proper protocol when they come upon an oversized load! Too many times I’ve seen John Q Public be so unaware as to think that this pickup truck I’m driving, even fully dressed out with front and rear oversize load signs, flags waving and amber lights a flashing, IS the reason for them to slow down, pull over, etc. They don’t read the signs, they’re only aware that I’m in their way, and as soon as I pass by they continue on their way, only to be faced with the reason I’m even out there, but by this time they’ve forgotten all about me and now have to hit the ditch, or back up or die! Sometimes the load is so big they really can’t even see it until they’re right up on it, and I can only hope and pray for those that have escaped disaster, that from that point on they’ll pay closer attention to their surroundings and especially the flashing lights and decked out pilotcars that are in the way of their progress, because as you stated earlier, the driver of the oversize load can not stop as easily or as quickly as they can, and statistics show that death is inevitably involved, usually the driver of the smaller vehicles. We are there to protect the general public from the load, to protect the load from the general public, and to ensure the safe and timely transport to delivery of the load.

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  10. I have to say that’s one of the best written articles I’ve seen in a while and more public service announcements like this need to be carried out and shared throughout the public

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    • Please do – if you could credit the BC Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure when you do – that would be excellent. Thanks!

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  11. very well put and we thrive for progress in our transportation regulation,hopefully they will add this as a requirement to pass or even get your license

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  12. Good article. However, the first line that says Pilot cars are 1/2 ton pickups is not true. They can be any type all the way to a 1 ton or more – but usually always a pickup.

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  13. Thank you for this post. As I am one the drivers hauling the loads it is a real pleasure to watch a professional in action. Thank you again!!!

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  14. This Blog is a very good start toward public education, lets keep it up to date regularly.
    As time progresses, BC still needs to introduce training and certification for pilot car drivers, this should be in addition to making broad changes to legislation which replaces outdates law, bringing about change that will guide both pilot cars and heavy haul operators in coming years.

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  15. Please we are wondering if we could use the above written words for How to work with Pilot Cars in our Web Page in Australia. our Association is “National Pilot Vehicle Drivers Association”
    I think this is an excellent worded document to show people as to how the General Public should work with Pilot Cars.

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    • The answer to the question can you communicate with the pilot car and oversize load is -Yes most of the time you can if you have a CB. Pilot cars and oversize loads are required to have a CB do that they can communicate back and forth. Usually they will have 2 cbs, 1 on channel 19 for communication with other trucks and Escorts on the road, and the second cb set to a channel (with not as much traffic )agreed to by pilot car and truck. So usually if you call out on channel 19, they will respond back to you.

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        • In the US and Canada ALL pilot/escort cars are required to have a CB radio…I took the certification class yesterday and this was a point of emphasis. Most also carry a uhf/vhf to communicate easier with law enforcement.

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          • Hi Steve, I’m not sure where you took your certification, but unfortunately in western Canada, as far as I know there isn’t any official certification course for pilots. And in BC, there’s A LOT of pilots who do not run cb’s at all. We mostly use vhf out west and many carry two in their trucks. However you are correct that in the USA it’s required to use a CB. In central and eastern Canada cb’s are more common and vhf are the rarity.

          • Further to what Jeannine said, Pilot Car Operators mainly use VHF, even though they may have a CB just in case they are in an area that restricts the use of VHF, such as the USA. Also, the frequencies we use are restricted to those authorized by Industry Canada and we cannot and do not have access to emergency services frequencies.

            Using a VHF radio requires a licence and a list of frequencies are supposed to be on your licence application. There are some common trucking frequencies that just about anyone involved in the trucking industry can use in BC, known as LADD channels. A lot of trucking companies can also have their own frequencies, which must be approved by Industry Canada and often have limited areas where they can be used so they do not interfere with other services.

            If you are on the highways often and want to listen in on the teams involved in moving these massive loads, you can get a mobile or handheld VHF radio and get the frequencies installed by an approved radio shop (they can help with the licencing paperwork too). But if you do so, please do not interfere with the communications of the team. The pilot cars are relaying important road information to the truck driver so he can avoid obstacles. However, address the pilot car to request when it is safe to pass (we love when others let us know what they want to do). Just keep the communication short and to the point and we will accommodate you as soon as it is safe.

  16. Great information.. says it all.. oversize loads are here to stay.
    Now.. time for people to absorb it and live it safely.
    Too many state governments refuse to do advertising to have the general public stay safe.

    Reply
    • I am no longer piloting but I am still have friends, both pilots and load drivers that I stay in touch with. Some of the best pilot car operators I know have also retired from the industry but remain interested to see how things progress.

      Having said that, I am somewhat disappointed to see that a formal training and certification process is still not available. Almost everyday I see pilot car operators doing things that make me wish I could educate them on what they are doing wrong, why they shouldn’t be doing it and what they should be doing instead.

      The public, for the most part, still have zero understanding of how pilot cars operate and why. This is why it is so important to have a standard that can be enforced amongst pilot car operators. Once the operators are all doing the same thing consistently, the public will begin to understand what they are doing and what to expect when approaching or passing an oversize load.

      In anticipation of a formal training and certification course, a couple of my pilot car friends and I were collaborating on content for a course. Bit was amazing to see how many of us had the same ideas and equally amazing to see how many other pilot car operators seem to have no clue how to do the job properly.

      We even had an incident caught on dash camera from a so-called professional pilot that just made us say “what the #$!#”.

      I hope that training and certification comes soon to this industry, for many reasons.

      Reply