How To Safely Share the Road With an 18-Wheeler

Commercial truck driving is an endlessly increasing industry that will only continue to grow larger in the future. Our nation relies heavily on trucks and their drivers. Trucks haul everything from baby food to olive oil to goldfish and to items for disaster relief areas. A truck brought everything you see in your local grocery store. Between 1980 and 1995, the truck driving industry has increased almost twice as quickly as the overall labor force. This means there were more job opportunities opening up for truck drivers than there were for any other industry. They aren't going anywhere, so we might as well learn to share the road. Here's how:

  1. Merging. The average commercial truck is over 70 feet long. It's fair to say that with 70 feet of heavy equipment, merging can become quite awkward. Most state laws dictate that trucks need to be in the far right lane, which just so happens to be the merging lane. When a big rig is fully loaded, it weighs approximately 80,000 pounds and takes 3 football fields to come to a complete stop. Braking for every car at every on-ramp is nearly impossible. Their goal is not run you off the road onto the shoulder, although at times it may seem like it. The goal is to merge around them. Don't expect them to do anything. Either speed up and get in front of them or slow down and get behind them. Otherwise you end up on the shoulder, which can be a very dangerous place to be.
  2. Tailgating. You may have seen the sticker on the back of some of the trucks that say, "If you can't see my mirrors, I can't see you." It's not just a pretty slogan. If you're tailgating a truck and you can't see his side-view mirrors, he has no idea you are back there. And if he doesn't know where you are, he can't avoid you.
  3. No zones are no zones. Also posted on the back of some trucks are stickers indicating where the "no zones" are. For those of you who don't know what a "no zone" is, it's a blind spot. These vast areas are behind, beside and in front of a truck. If you are in these zones, the driver cannot see you. If something were to happen and the driver needed to move over quickly he would have to do so if you were there or not. Also, if the truck were to blow a tire, it would go one of two directions. It can go underneath your car and cause you to lose control and spin out or it can go right through your windshield and threaten your life. The goal when passing a truck is to pass fast. Don't stay next to a big rig any longer than you have to.
  4. Slow down or move over. Most state laws dictate that if there is an emergency or police vehicle on the shoulder, trucks must move left if possible. If they are unable to move left, they must slow down. The law does not state they have to do this if it's a non-emergency vehicle although most drivers will move left if they can. There are two kinds of drafts that trucks can create - one that pulls and one that pushes. These drafts can be very dangerous if you are pulled over on the side of the road and are standing outside of your vehicle. When the truck passes, the draft can either pull you directly under the tires or it can literally pick you up off your feet and push you into whatever is behind you (tree, cement partition, your vehicle, etc.). This draft can also pick up large amounts of debris from the side of the road. Anything that moves at 65 mph can cause serious injury.
  5. Truck drivers are not responsible for flying debris. If you are driving behind a truck and a rock flies up and cracks your windshield, that driver or his company is not responsible for the damage. The law only states that a truck must have mud flaps and that the load must be covered. That prevents most - but not all - debris from coming up off the road. Yelling, cursing, chasing or threatening the driver won't get you anywhere as he has no control over the debris or the damage. However, if a rock hits your windshield and it came from a truck where the load was uncovered, you would need to prove that particular rock came from that particular truck.
  6. Swerving trucks. The most common misconception when people see swerving trucks are that the driver either is falling asleep or is not paying attention. This is not always the case (although occasionally it can be). When the wind is blowing and a trailer is empty, there is no weight to keep the trailer from moving around. The truck itself is designed to be lightweight since the loads they carry are so heavy. Trailers are made out of aluminum. When they are empty, trucks are literally foil boxes. Nevertheless, swerving trucks can still be dangerous. The driver is probably doing all he can to keep the truck on the road and in his own lane. You should move over, pass fast and get out of the way.
  7. Always assume the trucks are loaded. You cannot tell if a truck is loaded or empty simply by looking at it. Do not make any assumptions based on whether or not you think a truck is loaded. Always assume the truck is loaded to its maximum capacity and it will take 3 football fields for it to come to complete stop.
  8. Tourists in every town. Treat every truck driver as you would an out-of-town driver that is lost. Truck drivers change cities all day long. The don't know much - if anything - about the cities they're in. Be courteous when lanes end abruptly or turn into exit-only lanes and they need to merge. Truck drivers are tourists in every town they are in. Be courteous and patient and let them merge.
  9. Tipping. When there is an obstacle in the road (whether an object, animal or stopped vehicle), a truck driver cannot swerve. When a driver swerves to avoid the obstacle, he runs the risk of tipping his truck. The aftermath can be catastrophic. Commercial tractors (the actual truck, not the trailer) are made of fiberglass. Fiberglass crushes. A tipped truck can be fatal for the driver. Depending on the load, the merchandise these trucks are hauling can be worth about half a million dollars. A truck tipped on its side can close down a highway for hours if not days or weeks. A special tow truck is required to remove the truck itself, as well as a team to come clean up the load that is now strewn about the highway. In some cases HAZMAT may need to be called. If the truck was hauling fuel and it ignites, the burning fuel can literally melt the highway. This would cause major destruction and damage. (See SFgate for a related accident in San Francisco, CA.)
  10. Truck tires. Truck tires are designed for long haul use. To get the maximum number of miles from each tire, it is not uncommon to "re-tread" a tire. Basically, when you re-tread a tire, you glue a strip of a new tire to the old tire. As you may have noticed from the debris on the road, re-treads do come off. This is another danger of driving in a "no zone." Re-treads can come off entirely or in pieces. At 65mph, a medium-sized piece of a re-tread tire can cause decapitation or serious injury. Again, move over, pass fast and get out of the way.
  11. 17 seconds. It takes a loaded truck 17 seconds to completely clear an intersection. Truck drivers understand they are slow and that no one wants to be stuck behind them. However, passing a truck and cutting him off only slows him down and makes his job harder. That driver has places to be just like you do, so be courteous. Stay where you are, let him clear the intersection and if need be, wait for the next green light.
  12. 9 seconds. Truck drivers are required to keep a 9 second following distance from the car in front of him at all times. For you, it's only 3-5 seconds. Most people see the space in front of a truck and quickly move into it in order to not get stuck behind him. This space is there for a reason and is crucial to the safety of the truck driver and the car in front of him. If you are in that space, you have shortened his space to come to a safe, complete stop.
  13. Big=slow. Do not assume that because trucks are so large that they are slow. Sure, it takes them a long time to accelerate, but on the other hand, it takes them just as long to stop. The heavier the truck is, the longer it will take. If you assume you have the time to get in front of him because he's slow, you are taking the risk of him running right over the top of you.
  14. Convoys. Trucks often ride together. A truck driver can legally drive an 11-hour shift every day. They see almost nothing but open road and that can get lonely. Most trucks have a CB radio that allows drivers to communicate with each other. However, this radio only reaches a 1/4 mile radius so they need to be close in order to talk. Another benefit of driving in a convoy is that the first truck takes on the brunt of the wind resistance and the trucks following it get better gas mileage. You'd be concerned about this too, if you were paying upwards of $400 to fill your tank each time. Convoys can be dangerous if the trucks do not allow enough space between the front end of one and the rear end of another. If one were to slam on his brakes, it would create a domino effect. For this reason, driving between two big rigs can be incredibly dangerous. If those trucks were to collide, you would literally disintegrate between the two. The impact would be far too great to survive. It is extremely dangerous. Again, move over, pass fast and get out of the way.
  15. Bright lights. Another common misconception people make about big rigs is that since the driver sits up so high, leaving your bright lights on won't affect his vision. This is simply not true. Yes, he sits higher than you but his line of vision is still the same. He's looking at the same road you are. Follow the same rules for truck drivers as you do for other drivers.

Remember, truck drivers are people just like you. They make mistakes, they don't always pay attention as well as they should, they get behind the wheel when they are tired or stressed, they have deadlines, families and schedules, they get phone calls, eat while they drive, etc. When in doubt, don't assume and don't expect the driver to do anything. Move over, pass fast and get out of the way.


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