Mike’s Rules Of The Road

July 25th, 2002

Mike’s Rules Of The Road

Okay, I know I’m probably going to bore some of you to tears with this, and most likely piss off a few too (yeah, and what else is new, you ask? Shut up.) But I saw this report on ABC’s Nightly News the other night, and since I’m pretty uniquely qualified to comment, at least as far as blogdom goes, maybe I should just regard it as a public service and get on with it. So here’s the backstory:

Car drivers are at fault more often and substantially more likely to die in accidents with big-rig trucks, according to a study released today by the Automobile Association of America.

In those crashes, 98 percent of fatalities occurred in the car. Car drivers were to blame in 75 percent of the accidents, while truckers were deemed responsible in the rest.

“Car drivers are unfortunately driving around trucks the same way they are driving around cars, which can lead to catastrophic circumstances,” said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

Yes indeedy. I spent twenty hours out of a possible twenty-four yesterday in a truck (not all or even most of it driving, of course – truckers all know their lives are defined by the old saying, “hurry up and wait”), and I am continually amazed at what people in four-wheelers expect to get by with when it comes to dealing with trucks.

In the broadcast, they interviewed an SUV-driving yuppie-type gal who made the outrageous claim that:

“Truck drivers seem to think that they have the right of way even when they don’t,” she said. “They drive, most of them, very dangerously.”

Like many car drivers, Lee thinks truck drivers are to blame for many problems on the roads.

“They have bigger, more dangerous vehicles,” she said. “They need to be a bit more careful, a bit more cautious and watch out for those in little cars.”

I hate to disabuse this bimbo of a cherished misconception, but the fact is that in most conflict-type situations, truck drivers DO have the right of way. The problems are usually caused by car-drivers getting a bad case of the old Oh-God-I-can’t-let-this-truck-get-ahead-of-me fever, and this is borne out in the above-cited statistics. I’ve seen way too many cars pull out in front of trucks, cut them off in traffic, dive into a way-too-small hole right before a big freeway stack-up – all on the assumption that a truck can stop just as quickly as a car, and all in the name of getting the jump on said truck and securing that coveted spot one place up in the line or getting to grandma’s house thirty seconds earlier.

Herewith a few things everyone – that’s EVERYone; yes, even you – should always bear in mind when driving around or near 18-wheelers:

1) These things are not Ferraris. Your average sleeper tractor pulling an unloaded 53-foot tandem-axle trailer weighs in the neighborhood of 35,000 pounds. Under full hard braking (not a skidding, tire-smoking, jack-knifing, locked-brake panic stop, but the next step down) such a rig will require the length of a football field (including the end zones) to come to a dead stop from 60 miles an hour – it’s one of the questions they ask you on the Class-A-license test. Fully loaded, the same rig will weigh between 80-85,000 pounds. Stopping distance will be concomitantly increased. That’s 85 thousand, with a THOUSAND, pounds, folks. Split-axle flatbeds and oversize loads will weigh a whole helluva lot more (that’s why the axles are split – so they can carry more weight). Most of the rigs you see on the highway will be fully-loaded. Driving around with an empty trailer is known in the trucking world as “deadheading” and professional drivers avoid it like an ass-whupping – it almost always means they’re burning diesel and up-time hours for no pay whatsoever. Your puny anonymous plastic Nipponese egg-mobile weighs around 4 or 5 grand at most. There is absolutely no contest here, folks – if you pull out in front of me and don’t allow me enough room to get stopped, we will tangle, and you will lose. Big. I’ll drive through you like a fat man’s finger slashing through a tub of Cool Whip, and there won’t be a damn thing I, you, or anybody else can do about it.

2) No matter how many times your driver’s ed teacher, your mom, or your girlfriend has told you otherwise, you are not as good a driver as you think you are. You are not Mario Andretti, nor are you Dale Earnhart reincarnated. After spending most of the last twenty years behind the wheel of one type of commercial vehicle or another for a minimum of 8 to 10 hours a day, every single working day and a whole bunch of non-working ones too, I promise you I am a way-better driver than every last person reading this, unless you’ve been to the Bob Bondurant driving school. Yes, even you. I guarantee it. But if you do something stupid and don’t allow me any opportunity of reacting to it in a way that stands a chance of correcting for your mistake, all my not-inconsiderable driving skills aren’t going to save you. If we crash, you will most likely die. Not because I am a big bad megalomaniac trucker who thinks I own the Interstate, but because there are physical limitations on how effective my response can be. I’m a very damn good driver, but I am not God, and therefore lack the ability to repeal the laws of physics so that you may avoid the consequences of your impatience.

3) SUV’s are not suits of armour. They are marginally safer than plain-old cars, but there are no guarantees of safety anywhere on this particular planet. Astonishingly, you can in fact be hurt or killed in one. It continually amazes me how many times I see people whipping through traffic in their Expeditions or Grand Cherokees, cutting in and out, and jerking the wheel as if they were driving a Testarossa. I’m even beginning to think we may need some sort of special license for the things, as with motorcycles and, well, trucks – and that’s a pretty extreme position for a small-l libertarian like myself to take. But too many people seem not to know that SUV’s are not, repeat not, designed to be driven like racecars. I’ve seen these same lackwits lose control and start fishtailing across the Interstate at 75 mph, miraculously regaining control by they-know-not-what means before causing a horrible crash. They don’t even understand why they lost it in the first place. If you’re driving an SUV, you’re driving the land-based equivalent of a garbage barge. Act accordingly. You wouldn’t try to run a motocross race on a full-dress Harley, would you? If your answer is yes, please consider hanging yourself immediately so as not to hurt the sensible among us with the consequences of your lack of cognitive ability. Don’t shoot yourself – it gives us gun owners a bad time with the legislature and someone has to come along and clean up your mess.

4) If you’ve been cruising blithely along in the left (or center, on a three-lane highway) lane for a half-hour or so, please consider moving the fuck over, you selfish ass-pirate. “I pay taxes and I’ll drive wherever I want.” Well, fuck you, Einstein. This is illegal in most states, although many states don’t really enforce it much. Trucks usually can’t use the left lane on three-laners, which makes the center lane our passing lane, and the truck-lane restrictions ARE usually enforced – probably due to the fact that the fine for any ticket for a big rig is automatically double what it is for cars in most states. You’ll often see a truck jump over to the left lane in frustration after being trapped behind some semi-conscious droolcase doing the speed limit or below up and down hill after hill after hill. He’s risking a hefty fine, but he’s fed up enough to take the chance. Those “slower traffic keep right” signs were put there for more than just your reading enjoyment.

Related Corollary: If you’re going down a hill in the left lane and a truck pulls up on your bumper, do not be shocked and surprised. Just get over. The truck driver is worried about smoking his brakes. You probably think, “Oh, he’s being a bully and an asshole – I’ll show him!” If so, you are very stupid. Most likely he’s standing on the brake pedal with both feet, watching his brake air pressure drop and smelling that awful telltale smell that means his brake shoes are heating up to unsafe levels, mouthing the trucker’s mantra when faced with yet another obstinate bad driver: “Please stop, please stop, pleeeaaase stop…” Just get the hell over, okay?

5) Contrary to popular perception, trucks don’t regularly haul ass down the road at amazing speeds. Don’t argue, it’s true, and there’s a reason for it: almost every truck owned by a trucking company has a governor on it which limits the speed at which the truck will go. Some are set pretty low – JB Hunt trucks used to be set at 63 mph, although I hear they’ve bumped it up some recently. Swift sets theirs at 65, which makes for some ribbing on the CB radio (“Swift, huh? No you’re not”). Most seem to be set between 70 and 75, which must make life hell for drivers who run in Texas and Montana. Of course you do see some trucks blazing along at 80-plus – these guys are owner-operators and can go as fast as they want. But as it happens, owner-operators are also almost always the most experienced and all-around best drivers out there, so it shouldn’t worry you all that much. And of course there are exceptions to that, just like anything else. But if you get stuck behind a truck who just simply won’t do the posted limit, chances are he’s just as unhappy about it as you are. But hey, his boss is saving a few cents per mile on diesel.

6) When they see you coming down an on-ramp, truckers will usually jump over to the left to allow you to easily merge onto the highway. (If he can – quite often, car drivers will see this as an opportunity to get around the truck and will come up his left side, boxing him in and allowing him no room to maneuver, thereby making it difficult for you to merge. And he usually can’t just slow down and let you on, because it takes a great deal of time and fuel to get back up to speed again and chances are he’s already got another four-wheeler riding his ass anyway. Grit your teeth, slow down, merge behind the truck, and blame your fellow four-wheeler for this one.) This is no small courtesy, because moving a large, inherently unstable vehicle from lane to lane always carries with it an element of danger and risk. So when a trucker lets you on in this manner, don’t just get beside him and cruise along matching his speed. If you do, you’ve just trapped him in the left lane, and he really doesn’t want to be there at all. Most likely there’s an uphill grade coming up which is going to slow him down to well below the posted limit. Next thing you know there’s a line of cars stuck behind the hapless trucker, shaking their fists and muttering about “those damn truck drivers,” when all the guy did was show a little courtesy to merging traffic – and all he really wants is to be able to get over and out of the way. Return the favor, slow down a little and let the guy back over. Everybody will be happier for it.

7) This one is so obvious, I still can’t believe the number of people who simply refuse to do it. So I’ll put it in caps and throw in some profanity for emphasis, to make sure you remember: USE YOUR FUCKING TURN SIGNALS, YOU GODDAMNED DOPE. It’s truly difficult for me to comprehend why, but nobody does this anymore. What in the name of all that’s holy is so difficult about this? Are you arthritic and find it hard to move your hand the 3 or 4 inches required to activate the little lever? Is the signal lever in your car hooked up to a half-ton of bricks in the trunk, therefore requiring the strength of an unshorn Samson to move the few millimeters required to activate those pretty blinking lights? Perhaps you belong to a heretofore-unknown sect of militant Islam that advocates bringing on the Jihad by fomenting Terror On The Highways? Whatever, just use the damn things. Make it a habit – it’s not a hard thing, I promise. I can’t react to whatever boneheaded move you’re planning and maintain a safe distance between 80,000-pound me and 4,000-pound thee if you don’t at least give me some hint of where you’re going.

8) Don’t pass me on the right. Not ever. Never, never, never – period. The right side of a truck is known universally in trucking circles as “the blind side,” and there’s a damn good reason. There’s a whole section in the DMV test manuals that talks about the importance of never backing to the blind side without at least one spotter on the ground. We frequently are forced to do it anyway, and every last one of us hates it like a root-canal. There’s a quite large blind spot on that side, and no amount of mirrors will fix it. If you pass me on the right you stand at least an even-money chance of being forced off the road when I try to get back over and don’t see you hiding over there. Then you’ll sit in the ditch, wondering what the hell just happened (assuming you’re conscious) and cursing those damned truck drivers again. Or worse, you won’t have any place to go and your lovely plastic eggmobile will end up a tangled, mangled mess permanently welded to my undercarriage. You yourself will end up as red goo ground deeply into your fine leather interior. Just don’t do it, okay?

Related Corollary: Those signs you see on the backs of trailers that say, “If you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you” are absolutely, one-hundred-percent true. In some circumstances, even if you CAN see my mirrors, I still can’t see you. Never, ever forget this one.

9) If you see a truck weaving around, crossing lanes and whatnot, get the hell away from him as quickly as you can. He’s falling asleep. You don’t want to be anywhere near him when the wreck finally happens. I would be willing to wager that damn near all of that 25 percent of trucker-caused accidents come down not to bad driving but to this right here. There are extremely strict rules about how many consecutive hours a driver is allowed to stay behind the wheel, and they are often flouted by drivers who are under immense pressure from their bosses, shippers, and everyone else with a stake in the load getting there on time. They routinely ask the impossible of truck drivers (“Well, why the hell CAN’T you get these widgets from Los Angeles to Memphis by tomorrow? If you can’t, we’ll just find someone who can…”) because truckers are at the bottom of the corporate food chain, and are always blamed for the purchasing and warehousing mistakes made by others. It’s convenient for everybody except the guy behind the wheel, who’s spent so much money on herbal “trucker speed” over the course of his career he could’ve bought the factory by now. The trucking industry is also in a highly-competitive state of flux right now that makes for dangerous shortcuts. The salespeople for any given trucking company know quite well that if they don’t agree to do the impossible for their shippers, there are ten other trucking companies lined up outside their offices who will, or make their drivers die trying. Ever wonder what those drivers are talking about on the CB radios? Number one is of course the bear report, letting other drivers know where the speed traps are. Number two would have to be the pretty girl in the red sports car going northbound at milemarker (“yardstick,” in CB lingo) 36. Number three is how goddamned shitty the trucking business is these days (number four would have to be all those dootbrains in four-wheelers and how the hell they ever got a license in the first place) and how overworked and underpaid we all are relative to the amount of responsibility we have. We all pay attention to the other trucks out there and how they’re driving, and if someone’s falling asleep or doing some other foolish thing every one of us in the vicinity will know it pretty quick. There are several commonly-accepted methods that we use to wake the guy up and let him know in no uncertain terms that he needs to pull over and get some sleep. Every last driver out there would rather risk being late and losing his job than kill somebody or himself, but in the nightmare rush to get things done sometimes a driver will push himself too hard, and as a driver you’re in trouble in a situation like that way before you ever realize it. Best thing that you as a four-wheeler operator can do is just get the hell out of the way, fast.

10) The basic, final rule that sums all the rest up nicely: trucks are big, slow, difficult to maneuver, and quite dangerous. Maneuvers that take mere effortless seconds in a car are difficult and take twice as long in a truck. We truck drivers have to plan everything we do four or five steps in advance, which is a concept that car drivers are apparently wholly unfamiliar with. If a truck makes a wrong turn, it may well take him an hour of driving before he can even find a spot he’s able to turn around in – this very thing happened to me yesterday in Podunk Georgia, dammit all to hell. If he pulls out to pass, he has to be looking ahead to the uphill just ahead and figure out whether he can build up enough to speed to get around and back in before the inevitable slow-down. Trucks are inherently unstable and prone to flipping over. Think about it – they’re long, tall, and narrow. Add to that the possibility of a heavy load (topheavy, too, and most likely weighing more than the tractor and trailer combined) suddenly shifting and you have great potential for disaster. As I’ve said many times, if the average person makes a mistake on the job, he’ll get yelled at by the boss. Worst case, he may have to stay after work an extra hour to fix it. He may even get fired. When a trucker screws up, people usually die. So always make sure to give trucks as much room as you’d give, oh, say, a Tyrannosaurus Rex if he suddenly appeared traveling next to you on the highway at 70 miles per hour. We’ll all live longer, truckers and four-wheelers alike. And if you remember to use a little courtesy now and then, our blood pressure will probably collectively drop too. A good thing, n’est ce pas?

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