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September 3, 2013

Sharing the road with trucks

Truck drivers need to be mindful of other motorists, but other motorists should also be mindful of commercial trucks.

“While I was driving on the highway one day, a Hannaford Supermarkets 18-wheeler came trucking past me in the right lane,” wrote Peter DeMarco in a column for the Boston Globe. “Soon his left turn signals began flashing, so I eased up on my gas pedal to let him in front of me – a courteous gesture, I thought.”

However, DeMarco’s father was also in the car and he instructed his son to flash his lights. After questioning his father’s instruction, he was told that it was helpful to the passing truck driver.

“Hold the headlights off to a count of three, then put them on to bring him over,” DeMarco’s father had said. “The minute you flash your lights, it’s so much easier for him to pass. That’s the signal for trucks. Do it when he’s about four car lengths past you.”

“Truck drivers, my dad explained, sometimes have a difficult time judging how much distance they have between the back of their trailer – frequently some 40 feet long – and the car that’s directly behind them,” DeMarco wrote. “It’s usually not a problem on a sunny day, but poor road lighting or the glare of headlights at night, or splashing water (it was raining at the time) can create uncertainty, even for veteran truckers.”

DeMarco said that particular incident got him thinking about what other things the average motorist might not understand about sharing the road with commercial trucks. Here are some of the other tips he presented in his column:

Why don’t trucks go faster?

A lot of companies are governing their trucks to 65 m.p.h. because they are worried about violations, and also fuel efficiency. Even if it’s governed at 65, the driver doesn’t have the same pedal you do in a car, so he might only be able to get it up to 60.

Danger of an empty truck

“What will come to a stop faster, a train engine pulling two cars, or one that’s pulling 20?” DeMarco asks. “Common sense says the one with less weight behind it.”

That logic doesn’t apply to big rigs, however. It’s actually easier for a driver to stop a fully loaded truck weighing 80,000 pounds, than it is to stop a truck whose trailer is empty, or a truck that isn’t towing a trailer at all. When a truck is loaded, thousands of pounds of weight rest on its axles. That’s a good thing because the weight pushes the wheels firmly to the ground, creating more traction.

“The heavier the vehicle, the more work the brakes must do to stop it,” reads the Registry of Motor Vehicles’ Commercial Driver’s License Manual. “But the brakes, tires, springs, and shock absorbers on heavy vehicles are designed to work best when the vehicle is fully loaded. Empty trucks require greater stopping distances because an empty vehicle has less traction. You can’t steer or brake a vehicle unless you have traction.”

Trucks have blind spots

Flashing your lights to let a trucker into your lane is a nice thing to do, but what a big-rig driver wants more than anything is for you to avoid his blind spots. A typical 18-wheeler has a scary number of them – so many that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has a public service campaign about blind spots, dubbing them the “No-Zones” of a truck.

No matter how many mirrors a big rig has, its driver very likely can’t see you when your vehicle is:

1. Left of the truck, with the nose of your car just behind where the driver is sitting
2. Right of the big rig, about the same position. But this blind spot is bigger, extending two or even three lanes to the right of the truck
3. Directly in front of the tractor trailer
4. Directly behind the truck