What Are Deadhead Miles and Why Should Truckers Care?

May 24, 2024

Team ACV




What Are Deadhead Miles and Why Should Truckers Care?

ACV facts & figures

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A truck driver looks intently at the road ahead.

Deadhead miles, when a truck drives without an active load, are an unavoidable part of the trucking business but can severely cut into profits if not managed properly. Not only are deadhead miles a waste of fuel and operating costs, but they also increase safety risks on the road.

This guide will explain everything you need to know about deadhead miles, including  what they are, the costs involved, the dangers of deadheading, and strategies to minimize driving empty to boost your bottom line.

When you can effectively combat deadhead miles, you can operate a tighter, more profitable trucking operation, as well as protect yourself from unnecessary expenses and risks.

What Are Deadhead Miles?

At its core, deadhead miles refer to the miles a truck drives without an active load or cargo on board. These are essentially "empty miles" where the truck is running without any freight revenue being generated. It may seem uncommon, but it’s anything but. A 2021 report showed that out of every 103,000 owner-operator miles, 17,600 were deadhead miles.¹

A more prominent example is when a driver drops off a delivery load at their destination, then has to drive back to their home terminal or starting point without any new cargo to haul for that return trip. All of those return miles are considered deadhead.

But deadhead situations can arise in other scenarios, too. For example:

  • Driving from your home terminal to pick up a new load elsewhere
  • Repositioning or relocating your truck between loads if there isn't freight available along that route
  • Having to run empty after delivering a load if there aren't conveniently located reloads in the same area

In any situation where a truck has to travel a distance without cargo loaded, those miles get categorized as deadhead miles for the carrier or driver. These are miles where the truck is burning fuel, putting wear-and-tear on the vehicle, and occupying the driver's time - all without bringing in any actual income for that portion of the trip.

While unavoidable to some degree, deadheading too frequently or for too many miles can really start to hurt profitability and eat into net revenue. That's why smart logistics planning and working with partners who minimize required deadhead miles is so important.

What Are the Costs of Deadhead Miles?

While deadhead miles are an unavoidable part of trucking operations, they carry significant costs that can quickly eat into profits for carriers and owner-operators. Let's look at some of the biggest financial impacts of driving without an active load:

Fuel Costs

This is likely the largest expense tied to deadheading. With no incoming revenue for those miles, you're paying entirely out-of-pocket for every gallon of diesel or gas burned while running empty. Fuel represents one of the highest operating costs for truckers, so those unproductive deadhead miles are essentially burning money straight off your bottom line.²

Vehicle Wear and Tear

Deadheading doesn't give your truck or equipment a free pass on maintenance needs. The more you drive without hauling freight, the more wear and tear you put on components like tires, brakes, engines, etc. All that mileage adds up, and you're not making any income on those miles to cover future repair and replacement costs.

Lost Time and Efficiency

Lack of productivity while deadheading goes beyond just fuel costs. When your trucks are driving empty, you're also sacrificing driver hours and operational time that could have been spent actively hauling loads and generating revenue. That's a significant opportunity cost in terms of how many paying miles you could have logged instead of running empty.

Even if you do receive modest deadhead pay from some brokers or shippers to offset a portion of those empty miles, that supplemental income still pales in comparison to the revenue you could make by keeping trucks loaded with freight. The less deadheading is required, the better your profitability and asset utilization will be.

Reduced Capacity

For carriers with slim margins or limited fleet size, vacant equipment slots spent deadheading directly cut into their total freight hauling capacity and volume. If a significant portion of their operation involves driving empty, that's lost capacity that could have been devoted to income-generating loads instead.

While some degree of deadheading is inevitable, factoring in the very real costs - including fuel, maintenance, lost productivity, and reduced capacity - is crucial. Even modest decreases in required deadhead miles can substantially boost net profits for carriers and owner-operators in this capital-intensive industry.

The True Dangers of Deadheading

Beyond just the financial costs, driving deadhead miles also increases safety risks that truckers need to be aware of. An empty trailer – or no trailer at all – can make a truck more susceptible to road hazards and challenges, especially in severe weather conditions.

Risk of Rollovers/Accidents

A loaded trailer provides significant weight and downforce that helps anchor the truck to the road. When deadheading without that weighted cargo, trucks are more prone to being swayed or even flipped over by strong crosswinds, especially on bridges or exposed roadways. This threat is amplified for longer combination vehicles.

According to data analysis, a truck deadheading is 2.5 times more likely to be involved in a crash compared to when it's loaded.³ The decreased traction and stability are key contributing factors.

Severe Weather Vulnerability

High winds, heavy rain, snow, and ice all pose heightened risks when you're piloting an empty trailer compared to a loaded one. The lighter weight makes it harder to maintain control in gusts or whiteout conditions. Bridges are particularly hazardous spots for deadheading, as the relatively lightweight trailers get tossed side-to-side more easily by funneled crosswinds.

In September 2020, over 45 tractor-trailers were blown over by winds exceeding 75 mph during a severe weather event in Utah.4 While no scenario is risk-free, driving empty exponentially raises the stakes in foul conditions.

To stay safe while deadheading, drivers need to closely monitor weather reports, keep extra space between vehicles, reduce speeds accordingly, and potentially re-route or postpone trips if conditions become too hazardous for light loads. Keeping doors and loose equipment properly secured is also critical.

5 Strategies to Minimize Deadhead Miles

While some deadheading is inevitable, there are strategies carriers and owner-operators can employ to reduce these costly empty miles as much as possible:

1. Plan Return Loads and Backhauls

Instead of running a truck empty after delivering a load, look for backhaul opportunities to pick up a new load headed in the general direction you need to go. Many shippers try to facilitate these return hauls to avoid deadheading themselves. It may require a short repositioning move, but it keeps your truck loaded and generates revenue.

2. Utilize Load Boards

Digital load boards have made it much easier to find available loads that make sense for your truck's route and timing. Look for head-haul loads first, but load boards also allow you to scan for viable interim loads along your wider route network to cut down deadheading. The more updated load info you have, the better you can plan.

3. Integrate With Logistics Providers

Dedicated logistics partners like ACV Transportation help carriers and owner-operators find enough consistent freight to minimize deadheading. By working with a high-volume logistics company that moves truckloads all over the nation, you get better access to reload opportunities in the same areas you're delivering.

4. Reposition to Busier Freight Markets

If your current area is experiencing a freight lull, it may make sense to proactively reposition your fleet to busier freight markets where demand is higher. The short-term deadhead hit can be worth it to put yourself on more lucrative, high-density lanes.

Minimize Deadheads With ACV Transportation

Unlock a steady stream of auto hauling jobs across the nation with ACV Transportation. Our vast network includes thousands of car dealerships requiring vehicle transport daily. As an ACV partner carrier, you'll benefit from a dedicated account manager and our Preferred Carrier Program, which provides priority access to loads to keep your trucks earning.

Join ACV Transportation today and run a lean, profitable operation by avoiding those costly deadhead miles.


1. CloudTrucks Team. "Trucking Industry Trends, Statistics & Outlook for 2024." CloudTrucks, 26 Dec. 2023, www.cloudtrucks.com/blog-post/trucking-trends. Accessed 14 May 2024.

2. Fleetio. "A Comprehensive Trucking Cost Analysis: Tips & Tools to Maximize Efficiency." Fleetio, 9 May 2023, www.fleetio.com/blog/trucking-cost-analysis. Accessed 14 May 2024.

3. Payne, Rob. "Empty Trucks Increase Accident Risk." Phys.org, 3 Feb. 2016, https://phys.org/news/2016-02-trucks-accident.html. Accessed 14 May 2024.

4. Chappell, Bill. “Winds Up To 99 MPH Hit Utah, Skittering Semis And Shuttering Capitol.” NPR, 20 September 2020, https://www.npr.org/2020/09/09/911166769/winds-up-to-99-mph-hit-utah-skittering-semis-and-shuttering-capitol. Accessed 20 May 2024.