09 March 2010

Driving with Big Trucks

I’ve held down a lot of different job titles over the years. Some of them are sort of normal-sounding, things like Cashier, or Technical Documentations Manager, or Apple Picker. Some of them are a bit arcane: Jug Hustler, Air Gun Mechanic, Roustabout. Some of them sound familiar, but indicate that there’s a story in there somewhere: Cowhand, Beekeeper, Paleontologist. The job I currently hold down might fall into the last category: Big Truck Driver. I drive a Big Truck for a living now, and while lots of people might consider that a fairly mundane way to spend 70-hour work weeks, I can attest that there is a lot that goes on that most people are simply not aware of. I know this personally, because driving a Big Truck exposes me to people every day, in every part of the country, who not only are not aware of what is going on with a Big Truck nearby, but are also unaware of how close they come to death by making bad decisions in its vicinity. Driving 400-plus miles a day for weeks at a time, I see the bodies on the roadside under the sheets often enough to know that some of them came too close.

First, please let me introduce you to a Big Truck: mine. My truck is a fairly standard vehicle, a conventional Freightliner with a sleeper cab. With the 48-foot flatbed trailer that is behind me as I write, I am about 71 feet long, give or take a few yards. Empty, I weigh about 29,000 pounds. Loaded, I come as close to 80,000 pounds as I let the shippers get to. Right now I’m carrying the last of the load of ceiling tiles that I picked up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and brought across Ontario and Quebec to a contractor’s supply house here in Maine. They weighed about 44,000 pounds, so all that the interstate highway had to support was a measley 73,000, only 36 tons as opposed to the 40 it could be. So fully loaded I weigh only about as much as seven elephants.

But I am very large, and I am traveling at 65 miles per hour. I want you to think about that, because I regularly have to compensate for people who don’t, and I genuinely and truly don’t want to be the agency of your death. Because, you see, if you make a mistake driving near a Big Truck, you can die very quickly. In fact, every day in the United States, about 14 people do die in close encounters with commercial vehicles, and it’s very seldom the driver of the Big Truck who gets covered with the sheet that I mentioned earlier. It’s also very seldom the fault of the truck driver.

So I’d like to offer some suggestions about what exactly goes on with a Big Truck, from the perspective of the truck driver, and therefore to help you (who probably don’t drive a Big Truck) to be a bit more aware of how to make a truck driver feel better about sharing the road with you, rather than filling the air waves with colorful radio commentary about your skills and abilities so every truck driver for miles is warned about what you look like and how to stay away from you.

Friends, the most important thing you can do to help me out and to stay safe when you share the road with me is simply to stay as far from me as you can. I am large, slow, and maneuver poorly at highway speeds. There are blind spots on all sides that small snazzy brightly-painted cars can remain hidden in for miles at a time. You can be behind me, to either side, or even in front of me without me being able to see you. Many people like to drive so close behind me that the only way I can keep track of where they are is to look for the faint shadows they cast to either side of my trailer, or the reflections of their lights in the wet pavement. This is dangerous, because if I don’t know where you are, I can’t always avoid you if I have to move quickly.

When you decide to pass me, do it decisively. There are 18 very large tires on my truck, and although they last a long time, they sometimes choose to go out with a bang. An exploding tire sends heavy rubber shrapnel in all directions, and if you are loitering alongside when one hits a road hazard and lets go, it can destroy your car. If you ride a motorcycle, pass trucks quickly and in a far lane if you can. Don’t drive alongside me any longer than you have to.

Sometimes the wind hits a truck and tips it over on its side into the next lane. Think about that.

Think about what lane you’re driving in, as well. In cities, Big Trucks are often restricted to the lanes on the right (except in construction zones, where they make you go left-right-left-right so rapidly you think you’re marching in a parade). This means that a Big Truck can’t always pass you on the left, the normal passing side. So if you see a Big Truck in the mirror coming up behind you and you’re in a middle lane, do everybody a favor and shift to the left or the right, whichever is convenient for you. The truck driver often can’t, and then has to hang back behind you until traffic clears enough in his limited options in order to get by.

By the same token, if the truck driver finally is able to change lanes and starts to pull ahead, let him go. Sometimes I’ll catch up with a driver going slower than me, but as soon as I change lanes and move alongside, he will remember how fast he wanted to be going and will speed up until his speed matches mine. Now I’m stuck, because I can’t return to my lane, and if I slow way down and get back in behind him again, the scenario inevitably just repeats itself a bit farther along. In the meantime he hovers in my blind spot, down there where tires blow out and he can’t maneuver around a pothole or a piece of trash that shows up in his lane. And traffic builds up behind both of us, with everybody back there getting more and more impatient.

If you decide to pass me, please go right ahead. But please don’t get 30 feet in front of me, slip back into my lane, and then slow back down. I keep seven seconds of empty space in front of me, and if you’re in it, I’m doing my best to drop back. But I’m moving 80,000 pounds at 95 feet per second, and if you suddenly have to brake before I can open up a safe following distance, my last sight of you will be as your car disappears under my front wheels. If you do have to merge in closely, move away as quickly as you can. You can make it easier by not slipping back in too soon, and by not slowing down again until you’re up ahead.

This one is sometimes amusing. You know those white stop lines in town, painted across the ends of the traffic lanes, underneath the traffic lights? Notice how sometimes the ones close to the middle of the road have you stopping 10, 15, or even 25 feet farther back than the lanes close to the curb? That’s for me, because when I make that turn, the giant wheels on the back of my trailer cut the corner and cross your lane just in front of those painted stop lines. If an auto driver sleepily ignores them and pulls up in front of them waiting for the light to change, he is parking in my path. There’s not much I can do in that case except to turn as much of the corner as I can and then stop, placing the wheels of my trailer right in front of the now wide-awake auto driver. After a while he generally realizes that neither he nor my truck is going anywhere until he moves out of the way, which means he and everybody behind him has to back up. I just sit and drink my coffee while the lights change, and eventually people figure it out. But it’s nicer for everybody if we don’t have to do it that way

When you merge into traffic from an on-ramp, finish merging before you shift your attention to anything else. It’s a natural tendency to get situated onto the on-ramp, and then to settle down to return to whatever unfinished business was interrupted. But you’re not safely in a traffic lane yet. Over and over, I see people merging into fast-moving traffic flipping open their cell phones and punching in numbers, or reaching down to pick up that fast food bag to make sure that they got their onion rings, or opening up a map to see where the next exit is going to be. Sometimes the next thing they notice is that they are alongside a very long truck that is blocked in by other cars in front, behind, and to the side, and they have to put the cell phone down because they are now driving at highway speeds in the grass. I try to help them out in advance by adjusting my own speed for them, but often there’s nothing I can do. Too often.

Anyway, there’s lots more I could say about this, but I’ll save the rest for another day. Everybody has every right to be out there on the highways, but a Big Truck has lots of limitations that many auto drivers have no reason to ever be aware of. If any of this helps keeps any of you out from under those sheets that I pass by all too often, I am eternally grateful. And if it helps any of you understand why it is that the Big Truck seems to be behaving in a strange way, I hope that that has helped as well.

Happy motoring, and let’s all be safe out there.


Michelle-ozark crafter said...

I have a healthy respect for tractor trailers, probably because my brother drove one for many years.

kevin roberts said...

Yes, at three miles an hour I can park it in a matchbox. But at highway speeds all I can do is point it and pray.

Most people do just fine. But a day seldom goes by that I don't see problems come and go that didn't need to be there.

Even truck drivers avoid some trucks. We all try to stay away from wiggle-wagons and crazy trains, because they tend to drift around a lot more than a shorter combination vehicle.

Peggy Senger Parsons said...

Very Useful Post, Kevin.
I linked to it from SPG.

kevin roberts said...

You know Peggy, so many of these Quaker blogs are so, like, deadly serious. I don't mind being earnest about earnest stuff, but sometimes there's a time for plain ordinary Useful Community Stuff, too. How to repair a sash window, or what that clunking sound from the front of your car means, or how to cut up a chicken.

I was astonished to discover that nobody knows how to cut up a chicken any more. Because it's cheaper to buy one cut up already than to cut it up yourself.

That is genuinely strange to me.

Martin Kelley said...

Great post. I think I knew all the tips in it, but it never hurts to be refreshed.

I've driven the maximum-sized uhaul trucks one can drive without a CDL--about 24 feet. They're not as mammoth as your rig but they're big enough. I would have thought that the big "UHAUL" mural on the side should have clued other drivers into realizing I don't really know what I'm doing (at the time my primary transport was a 18 pound bicycle), but no: I saw the crazy swerving. It gave me a little appreciation for what the really big trucks are up against.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

Well, you've raised my blood pressure, Kevin. I've hated driving in heavy traffic, especially a mix of cars and big trucks, since forever. Now I've got new nightmares to deal with while I'm trying not to feel like the last mouse attending a cat festival, or the last living human on a planet of zombies!

You left out the part where the driver of the small car knows perfectly well they don't want to crowd that truck--but the other trucks and cars are bearing down behind me a good 15--20 miles over the limit, and _I've_ got nowhere good to go, either.

As for cell phones, good grief! In the immortal words of Click and Clack, the Tappet brothers, "Hang up and drive!" If I die young, I don't want it to be because some other bozo couldn't wait until they got home to decide what to order on their pizza!


Maybe I'll just stay home...

kevin roberts said...

Martin, a UHaul straight trucks will put you into many of the situations a longer vehicle will get into. It's all one big world, after all. Personally, I try to do things in slow motion, so that everybody knows what the lumbering Brontosaurus is going to do next. I try never to do anything suddenly, and will miss a turn rather than swerve to make it.

Cat, you're right--there are Billy Big Riggers out there who simply try to go too fast. We make more money the quicker things go, after all. My truck has a speed limiter that keeps me at or below 63 mph at all times, except downhill. They're mandatory in Canada on all big trucks, and that may come to a republic near you pretty soon. Truckers going too fast will make it happen that much more quickly.

There's another wrinkle on fast trucks-- I'm limited to 11 hours of driving in a day, with a drop-dead 14-hour limit on my total work day. If I'm on the road 15 minutes past my limit because I can't find a place to park in say, New England, then I'm subject to about a $500 ticket if a cop asks to see my logbook and sees that I'm over.

Sometimes that fast truck is trying his best to get off the highway before he becomes a criminal, and is risking a speeding ticket to avoid an hours-of-service violation.

Cat Chapin-Bishop said...

By the way, and I realize this is totally off topic... I love the photo of you in plain dress, posed in front of your Big Truck.


It plays with my mind. And I love that.

kevin roberts said...

I suppose it's just as well I never got around to the Maori facial tattoos I had worked out.

naturalmom said...

I'm like Cat -- big trucks make me nervous anyway and I speed by them as quickly as is safe or stay behind them. I never thought about the exploding tires though. Sigh. I expect one day I will be too scared to drive at all on the highway. Hopefully not until my children are grown, though.

Thanks for these reminders. You look great with your truck!

Nate said...

I guess your next post on the subject will include about the fact that a truck starting up a hill is GOING to slow down, and doggoneit, if a truck is approaching a hill get outta his way, the slower he has to approach one, the slower he is going to have to go. Good, timely post.

Hystery said...

My husband drives trucks for a living. He was fired from one job when he turned his company in for intentionally overloading their trucks and pressuring their drivers to speed. Another trucking firm he worked for would not allow their drivers to take breaks even for the bathroom and the men carried empty soda bottles with them to pee in while they drove. He's also worked for much more ethical companies that wouldn't do that to their drivers but knowing that some drivers are hurried, overworked, and stressed out is another reason to give them space and courtesy on the road.

kevin roberts said...

Hi Natural--

You know, this morning up in the UP I was parked beside a bulk container with double trailers, and I counted 42 tires on it. That's lots of potential. Just staying is a good policy--I and many others will appreciate what you do.

kevin roberts said...

Nate, you're right, and another aspect of this is traction. I can get stuck on wet grass when I'm empty, even though I weight 29,000 pounds. On uphills in icy conditions, the only way I can get over the top is NEVER TO SLOW DOWN. Otherwise my tires spin out and I stop dead, across the interstate. This is a big problem on uphill highway exits, too.

kevin roberts said...

Hi Hystery--Much of the industry was always like that, but it's getting better, what with electronic logging, speed limiters, and satellite locators to make sure the truck is really where your records say it was.

My company is Roehl Transport, and is dead honest and dead serious about safety. I will get fired if I get caught breaking the law or fudging on my logs. They've won the trucking industry's top-of-the-class safety awards now two years running. A very, very good company for a Quaker to work for, because integrity is a major focus with them.

kevin roberts said...

You know, there's another thing I notice from my seat six or eight feet up above all the cars. Do you ever have passengers in the front seat who get tired of keeping their feet on the floor and prop them up on the dashboard for a while? Shifting positions is nice, after all.

Next time they do that, ask them to read the words on the dashboard between their feet-- the ones that say "AIR BAG."

Ask them to think about how comfortable they might be if the air bag was activated in a minor front end collision, and folded their legs up in several places and pushed them behind their head. (I've never seen it personally, I've only been told.)

Just a reminder. Thanks for listening.

FGOH said...

Kevin - good post. Thanks. It makes me feel ill to be driving upsides a truck any longer than I have to (I drive a Smart car!!!) and I always hang behind until there is space in the road ahead for me to overtake the whole thing quickly and in one go.

Many of the trucks in the UK now have notices on the back saying "If you can't see my mirrors, I can't see YOU." A good reminder.

Oh, and as for the feet on the dashboard point - you're not going to feel much happier if there is no airbag as the dash will likely ram your knees into your chin instead.

Happy motoring!

kevin roberts said...

hi fgoh-

it took me ages to get to where i can log into this. home internet is too slow.

i remember once riding my bicycle down that giant hill at amesbury on the way to stonehenge. i had lost a bunch of spokes from the rear wheel and had pawned off all my camping gear on my friends. so i was headed down that long hill at about 45 mph when suddenly i was surrounded by a convoy of immense military vehicles, all gigantic, and all with little red and white L plates on the back.

don't think it mattered if they could see me or not, that day.