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.