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Your Office Chair

by Rolf Lockwood

These days you'd be hard-pressed to find a new truck that hadn't been spec'd with an air-ride seat, but that's only half the story. You can still be mighty uncomfortable even in a seat that successfully isolates you from the road. It has to do much more than absorb life's bumps for you.

A good seat also keeps you alert by supporting your back and your legs properly, by helping to keep the blood flowing through your veins, and by making sure you stay firmly in place. Thankfully, both truck dealers and the aftermarket are full of options, so your chances of finding a comfortable chair for your rolling office are very good and getting better. Today's seats offer all manner of adjustment possibilities, so much so that some of them come with an elaborate instruction book. Read it.

What to Look For

If you're an owner-operator, or a company driver lucky enough to be working for a carrier that listens to your spec'ing suggestions (which is increasingly common), you should research your seat choices carefully. After all, no other single component can have such a profound effect on your comfort mile after mile.

Here are your basic choices, and we'll leave upholstery to your own taste:

  • Air-ride or not - there's essentially no choice to be made in this instance unless you're on a serious budget, but mechanically suspended seats are available.

    Other choices: look at the kind of switches and controls the seat uses. Are they conveniently situated? Do they seem durable?

  • The seat back - the first choice is the back's height, and possibly its width. A low-back seat will be cheaper, but it may compromise comfort and it would leave your neck unsupported in a crash. Some seat makers offer a medium height, but most drivers will quite correctly opt for the high-back seat. Some come with a separate adjustable headrest, while others are integrated. A few manufacturers sell an extra-wide seat.

    Reclining seat backs have become common, and some can be folded flat. That makes for easy naps but when you come to fill in your log book, don't count it as time in the sleeper berth itself.

  • The cushion - this is perhaps the most underestimated part of a truck seat, especially in terms of how your legs are supported. You want a cushion long enough to reach just behind your knees, and you want to be able to adjust under-thigh support either by changing the slope of the seat cushion itself and/or by adjusting bolsters or cushion extensions at the seat front. Many seats now offer such adjustability.

    The other key factor is lateral support and you'll find that most seats have a concave section in the middle of the seat cushion that you sink into. You may also get - or be able to add as options - adjustable bolsters on each side.

  • Lumbar support - for many drivers this feature is critical. The idea is back support, by way of one, two or even three air bags inflated by air and controlled by switches. In simpler seats it's a lever-actuated mechanical feature.

    Ergonomic engineers will tell you that, more than any other comfort factor, drivers complain about the lack of support for the lower back. Combined with insufficient adjustment in the seatback angle, another major complaint, the result will be considerable discomfort and thus fatigue for most drivers. Better seats will provide support for the middle and upper back as well, by way of separate inflating air bags.

Last Words

Perhaps the most interesting recent seat development is the 'electronic shock absorber' that almost anticipates the bumpy bits. Its microprocessor and very sensitive sensor system detect the very start of a movement coming up from the cab floor, sending 500 commands per second to a hydraulic damper to adjust the degree of vibration control. The driver selects a soft, medium, or firm ride. It's been offered on one manufacturer's high-end seats since 1998, but other seat makers were reportedly about to announce its availability on selected models at the Mid-America Trucking Show in late March.

What else is ahead? Things like pressure-mapping, whereby sensors in the seat detect what each driver's weight distribution is, and self-adjust the various support areas around the seat to customize them for that person. Others include a cooling system for the seat surface. And how about speakers in the headrest to produce 'white noise' that blocks out distracting road sounds?

Even basic models are more comfortable than ever before, and some truck seats offer ergonomic sophistication that can finally rival the best luxury car. You'll pay for that sophistication, but who could seriously argue that you shouldn't be as comfortable as possible in doing your work?

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