Leatherballs XX: Leatherballs’ rules of the road

Jeez, the 20th installment of Ye Olde L-balls’ rambling, bitching, and peroration. And as it happens, this one ain’t really biker-related all that much, except insofar as a goodly number of us have jockeyed 18-wheelers around the nation at one time or another, including me. Then again, all of us have dodged the things, and none of us will ever come out a winner in a cold-steel confrontation between bike and big rig. So, herewith a few things everyone —that’s EVERYone, cagers and bikers alike—should always bear in mind when motoring 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.

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 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) 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 most 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 ass, 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 fry-grease levels, mouthing the trucker’s mantra when faced with yet another obstinate bad driver: “Please stop, please stop, pleeeaaase stop…” Just get the hell on over, okay?

3) 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 back when I was hauling freight, 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.

4) 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: IF YOU’RE IN A CAR, 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.

5) 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 the small percentage 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, which 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 crushable-vehicle operator can do is just get the hell out of the way, fast.

6) 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. Truck drivers have to plan everything they 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 way more than once, 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 can and do 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 two- and four–wheelers alike.

I get regular e-mails from H-D about once a week or so, and this week’s was a real…well. Featuring a fey-looking semi-male model and some too-skinny-but-still-doable chick on his knee, it was, naturally, for the Motor Company’s primary product these days: clothes. Specifically, and I quote, the “H-D Fall Collection.” Featuring some abomination called “slim-fit jeans.”

Now, you long-timers know I’ve defended the Motor Company against charges of being a bunch of soulless corporate greedheads here before. They’re in business to make money, just like any other business, and more power to ‘em. But I dunno, something about this just tweaked me in all the wrong places. And I’ll say this: when I walk into a H-D boutique one of these days and hear ‘em blasting out Duran Duran or the Cure on the in-house speakers, and I see it’s staffed by a bunch of willowy, wispy looking poofs dramatically sweeping their flowing locks over their left eye with a practiced flick of a limp wrist, well, I ain’t gonna defend ‘em no more.

I hope it never happens. But I ain’t making any bets.

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