In 1986, I learned how to drive a car. It wasn't until this year, though, that I learned how to drive a car safely around 18-wheelers. Where did I gain such knowledge? I earned my commercial driver's license and became an over-the-road trucker. In nine months behind the wheel of a Freightliner Cascadia, I've marveled at how oblivious automobile drivers are to the dangers of a loaded tractor-trailer. They're just as oblivious, in fact, as I used to be.
Trucking Safety Tips for Car Drivers
What to Do and Not to Do As You Drive Near Big Rigs
There are more than 2 million tractor-trailers on the road, and I know it can seem as if every one of them is trying to get in your way. I assure you that's not what we drivers want. Because we drive the lumbering leviathans of the road, however, sometimes we can't help it. And until Amazon figures out how to deliver chainsaws and end tables via drone, cars and trucks will need to play nice out there. So here are a few tips on what to do and what not to do next time you happen upon a semi:
Give Trucks Stopping Space: The magic number for trucks is 80,000. That's how many pounds my truck can weigh when fully loaded. That's the equivalent of about 24 Honda Accords or six adult African elephants. Because of that weight, my truck needs roughly 550 feet — the length of 1.5 football fields — to come to a complete stop from 55 miles per hour. A 2017 Ford Fusion, on the other hand, can stop from 70 mph in 178 feet. On the highway, however, it doesn't matter if the Fusion driver can brake quickly enough to avoid the accident ahead. What matters is whether I have enough space to avoid the Fusion.
Don't "Grillegate": Grillegating is tailgating at the opposite end. It's what happens when drivers pass me, pull over 25 feet in front of me, then drive the same speed I'm driving. I know you don't want to be stuck behind me, but 25 feet isn't enough of a safety cushion in relation to another car, never mind an 80,000-pound tractor-trailer. I cannot suspend the laws of physics if you need to panic-brake, so I will not have the space I need to even attempt saving your life. Another pro tip: Never, ever cruise between two semis that are less than 100 feet apart unless bottled-up traffic demands it. Inexplicably, minivan drivers love to tuck in between two trucks when the roads are as open as prairies. If you're in the fast lane being tailgated by a car, stay there and get around all the trucks in the slow lane. You're much safer with a car on your bumper than my truck on it.
Camp Out at Yellowstone, Not Near a Truck: Car drivers hang out beside my truck on the highway, usually in one of my large blind spots. This is a terrible idea. Back to those six elephants: If you drove up behind them as they were sprinting down the middle lane at 65 mph, you wouldn't dawdle in their slipstream, even if they were majestic and maintaining good lane discipline. Remember this when you approach a truck.
If you need to pass an 18-wheeler, get around it and keep moving. Also, because of my truck's massive braking distance, it's easier for me to try to go around an emergency situation than to brake for it. When you maintain formation at 62 mph next to my trailer, you block my best escape route.
Don't Match a Truck's Speed at the Merge: Car drivers on highway on-ramps will often see my truck and then match its speed, putting us on a collision course at the actual merge. It's as if the other driver is waiting for me to pull an Indycar move. But I don't have an Indycar move. I'm driving a 40-ton truck, probably at top speed, which might not be all that fast by your standards. Most freight trucks today are speed-limited: Mine can't go faster than 62 mph (on a downhill stretch, gravity will get it to 80 mph). Even if I could override the speed limiter, the truck can't outrun any car built after 1948. So if you give your car just a bit of gas, I'll be in your rearview mirror and out of your life by the time you hit the highway. This will make us both happy.
Beware of Deadly Underride: Underride accidents occur when a car runs under the side or the back of a trailer. More than 200 people are killed each year in side underride crashes, according to NBC News, citing government statistics. TCE Insurance Services, which specializes in trucking accident issues, reports that underride incidents most frequently happen at night and on very bright, sunny days. The gray-white color of most trailers makes them hard to see in bright sunlight. And at night, driver vision is often impaired by oncoming headlights. A driver might not see the trailer blocking the road. TCE also said that underride crashes usually involve flatbeds, which have much less visible surface, and those flatbeds are often carrying heavy construction equipment. So keep a keen eye out in work zones.
Pass on the Left: You may have seen these messages while driving behind a big truck: The back of the trailer has an arrow on the left door, pointing left and captioned, "Passing Side." An arrow on the right door points right and reads, "Suicide." True statement.
Whenever possible, pass trucks on the left, even if it means waiting a few seconds longer to do it. I know I have six or seven mirrors, and I know I take my time when changing lanes, but my road awareness is better on the left. When in the city, do not — I repeat, do not — sneak between a truck and the curb when you want to turn right at an intersection. The only exception is when you have a dedicated lane to do so. A month ago, a driver in Los Angeles squeezed between my truck and the curb even though I had my right turn signal on. I saw him just before I squished his car against a lamppost. He'll probably try it again, but not for a while.
My Turn Signal Is Your Friend: You do not need to be scared or offended when my turn signal starts to flash while you're next to me. The signal doesn't mean I'm commandeering your lane. It doesn't mean that you should get out of the way. It doesn't mean I'm trying to kill you. It just means that my truck is 73 feet long and weighs 80,000 pounds and, because of that, I need to give you and everyone else in traffic lots of notice of my intentions.
So please spare a little space in your heart — and your lane — when you see that turn signal light up. Every trucker out there would be most grateful. Especially me.