HARTLAND, Maine — When driving a big rig, the ability to see backwards is every bit as important as seeing dead ahead.
That’s why Gerard Dubois, who has been a trucker for more than 25 years, found himself griping to longtime friend Ray Lawrence that trucks ought to have a system for cleaning their side mirrors. Lawrence, a machinist by trade, began to cook up a solution.
“I knew what I was looking for,” said Dubois, owner of Pioneer Transport in Waterville, which has a dozen trucks on the road. “Ray had the skills to make it happen.”
In the year or so since that conversation, a lot has happened. Lawrence has built a number of prototype mirror wipers and settled on a design he says is simple and durable. The business, North East Wipers, has become a limited liability company and will soon take up residence in a workshop just off Interstate 95 in Waterville. The wipers have been working perfectly on Dubois’ truck for six months, and the two old friends are convinced their product will attract the attention of just about any trucker on the road. After all, even a few water droplets or a film of dirt or salt can create a serious safety hazard if they obscure a trucker’s view of his surroundings.
“We did a lot of research and it’s amazing to me that nobody every came up with a good system before now,” said Lawrence. “Almost every trucker we talk to tells us it’s a big problem.”
Most truckers stop periodically to check their loads, a process that in bad weather includes cleaning the oversized mirrors that are mounted to the cab. When they’re driving or on a job, that can be disruptive or impossible, depending on whether the truck in question is reversing into a dusty log yard or barreling down a rainy or snowy highway.
For Dubois, the worst combination is a mirror with droplets on it and a silver car driving in the passing lane.
“The silver blends right in with the road,” he said. “Now that I have these wipers, I just hit a button and there it is.”
So far, the wiper systems are installed on only two vehicles — Dubois’ Peterbuilt big rig and an International used by the Maine Department of Transportation. Those two brands of trucks have different mirror designs, but Lawrence has found a way to accommodate almost any truck out there.
“The Maine DOT has been very helpful,” said Lawrence. “The first question we had was is this even legal.”
After Lawrence integrated a safety valve that instantly isolates the wipers from a truck’s compressed air system if there’s a problem, the MDOT was confident enough to let the duo test the wipers on one of its trucks. Going forward, Lawrence and Dubois said their greatest challenge is marketing the idea and convincing potential customers of its durability. That’s reflected in North East Wipers’ motto: “If they’ll work here, they’ll work anywhere.”
And the best part, they said, is that the entire system, including custom installation, costs less than $500 — which is about what it costs to fill the diesel tanks on a typical big rig.
Some truckers fueling up at the Dysart’s truck stop in Hampden Thursday reacted positively to the concept.
“I had that idea four or five years ago,” said Gary Yeager of Sidney, Mont., who was changing a red marker light on his trailer. “It’s a big issue, especially when the road crews start using salt. It’d be nice to just push a button on the windshield wipers and clean it away.”
Dawn Dill of Springfield, who was hauling a load of logs, agreed.
“It sounds useful,” she said. “It would really help on those mornings when it’s cold outside.”
Andy Boone, a trucker out of Nova Scotia with a load of Christmas trees, said he probably couldn’t justify the expense.
“Five hundred dollars is more than I have to spend,” he said. “It just means when the weather’s bad I have to stop every few miles and clean my mirrors.”
Dubois and Lawrence, who have funded about $10,000 in start-up costs out of their own pockets, said that by outsourcing work to machine shops in central Maine, they could produce up to 250 wiper systems a week. Ideally, they’re hoping to reach an agreement with a truck manufacturer to make their system standard equipment, but they know their idea might take time to catch on.
“We know a lot of people are going to want to see them make it through a Maine winter first,” said Lawrence, who said he is seeking reputable trucking companies to test the wipers on some of their rigs. “We don’t anticipate that being a problem at all.”
For more information, con-tact Lawrence at 938-2247, Dubois at 491-0294 or visit the web site www.northeastwipers.com.