A reader named Joyce heard me somewhere or other on the radio mentioning how I thought the drivers of cars were not given adequate instruction in how to maneuver around large trucks. This was based in part in conversations I had had with Daniel Blower at the University of Michigan and a number of studies that have analyzed crashes between large trucks and passenger vehicles, and found that cars seemed to bear a larger share of the “contributory factors” in crashes (this is complex, though, so I urge you to view the full report). Just to take one simple barometer, in fatal truck-car crashes, according to Blower, the drivers of passenger vehicles were much more likely (eleven times) to have been drinking prior to the crash. There are certainly hazardous truckers, to be sure (and perhaps there will be more in a less regulated future), but in general they are trained drivers who are attuned to driving because it’s their job (many driving their own rigs). But another problem, perhaps less commented upon amongst the general public, is that car drivers treat trucks as other vehicles. As one study put it: “One reason why some car drivers perform unsafe maneuvers near large trucks may be that they simply do not know the risks associated with driving near trucks.”
I had a taste of this myself a few years ago when I rode along in an 18-wheeled tractor-trailer. I was astonished at how often cars would quickly change lanes, just in front of the truck, and how those cars would essentially vanish from sight beneath the high, long hood of the truck; and also how much work and time it took to get the truck to respond to things like being cut off. It actually changed the way I subsequently drove around trucks, treating them not as slower-moving obstacles to dart around but in general just trying to keep as far from them as I could.
In any case, blog reader Joyce recommended I look at John McPhee’s book Uncommon Carriers, and so I did. I was struck, in light of the above, by the opinions of the driver McPhee profiles in the opening essay:
“Ainsworth said he could teach a course called On-Ramp 101. ‘We get many near-misses from folks who can’t time their entry. They give you the finger. Women even give you the finger. Can you believe it?’
I could believe it.
‘Four-wheelers will pass us and then pull in real fast and put on their brakes for no apparent reason,’ he said. ‘Four-wheelers are not aware of the danger of big trucks. They’re not aware of the weight, of how long it takes to bring one to a halt, how quickly their life can be snuffed. If you pull any stunts around the big trucks, you’re likely to die. I’m not going to die, you are.”
Ideally, I suppose, large trucks and cars wouldn’t actually share the road. But all this leads me to wonder if this is an area of driver education that needs to be amped up — I certainly don’t remember any special attention given to this when I got my license.
Incidentally, Ainsworth went on to say, in the book:
“Gratuitously, he added, ‘Atlanta has a lot of wrecks due to aggressive drivers who lack skill. In Los Angeles, there’s a comparable percentage of aggressive drivers, but they have skill. The worst drivers anywhere are in New Jersey. Their life cannot mean a great deal to them. They take a lot of chances I wouldn’t take— just to get to work on time.”
We’ve all got our biases, I suppose, but I always have suspected the Garden State (where my in-laws live and I spend a lot of time) of being the tailgating capital of North America.
As an aside, I’m going to be on the “Freewheelin’” show tomorrow morning (Wednesday) on Sirius’ “Road Dog” channel. As an XM owner, I’ve often listened to that network’s equivalent channel, “Open Road,” which features quirky hosts like Dale “The Trucking Bozo” Sommers and is an otherwise fascinating glimpse into a subculture that’s bigger than you might imagine (I’ve been surprised at how many truckers call into NPR talk radio when I’ve been on — calling from the truck stop I hope).