CONTACTTRAFFICABOUT TOM VANDERBILTOTHER WRITING CONTACT ABOUT THE BOOK

Learning to Live with Large Trucks

Photo by Sean Walsh/Flickr

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).

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 9th, 2008 at 10:44 am and is filed under Cars, Drivers, Risk, Roads, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

6 Responses to “Learning to Live with Large Trucks”

  1. torrilin Says:

    I ended up taking 2 years worth of learner’s permit time to learn to drive. That meant I drove a minivan with a loaded trailer, got some time with a race car driver and a commercial licensed driver riding shotgun, and ended up with several thousand miles under my belt by the time I finally *was* licensed.

    Most of my classmates didn’t even have *half* the time I did in order to get their licenses, and most of them would freak out around a truck. They’d speed, dart desperately around because they were sure the truck would squish them… all sorts of reckless stuff. If they’d gotten the kind of lessons about the way cars and trucks interact that I got, they probably wouldn’t have driven so badly around trucks.

  2. karrde Says:

    I did recieve warnings about the dangers of large trucks. While in motorcycle training.

    Motorcyclists deal with a similar size/weight/stopping-distance disparity whenever they are in traffic with cars and SUV’s, let alone 18-wheelers.

    I sometimes wonder what road traffic (and fuel usage) would be like if everyone did a driving stint on a motorcycle, after some rigourous training in motorcyle safety. (I can get Prius-like fuel economy on a vehicle that can rival a Corvette in acceleration…but also a vehicle in which seat belts are useless, and any accident means a case of road-rash at minimum, and life-threatening injuries in the worst case.)

  3. mike in tn Says:

    I wish part of driver’s education would be in a loaded 18 wheeler. Go on a road at 55 and have a signal for the truck to stop. Knowing how long it takes a truck to slow and stop or maneuver would help on the highway.

  4. Jersey Devil Says:

    I am Glad to finally see some valid points being made toward educating automobile drivers on how to drive around large trucks. I just picked up the book today when I saw it on the shelf at my local Library here in Rahway, NJ. I drive an 18 wheeler and it disturbes me that the first mention of trucks in the book has the word Dangerous before it…and thats in the Prologe in the third paragraph on page six.
    If trucks are so dangerous and responsable for most of the mayhem on the roadways than by this line of thinking, parkways should always be accident free, shouldn’t they? They are not though. Roadways that trucks are not allowed on and/or hardly ever travel on have the highest accident rate of all. Think about the percent of accidents you see between 2 or more cars, and those you see between 2 or more trucks. I’ve been driving a long time and still have fingers left to count how many truck on truck accidents I have seen. Yes, the rate of car on truck accidents may be higher, but look at the times they accur. Usually, rush hour periods. Now, this line of thinking leads me to believe that trucks really arent dangerous at all. Only when a smaller vehicle intrudes on its space does the danger level rise…sort of like when car drivers wanted those mini-scooters banned from roadways because…a smaller vehicle intruded on it’s space and created danger and chances of incidents rose extremely high. well, there is one difference. cars are registered vehicles and the drivers are licensed. yes, this is true, but the fact is that car drivers finally got a taste of what it was like to always have a threat of incident circling around them and they had laws written into effect to prevent it. Trucks don’t have that luxury of asking the police to remove cars from the road so we dont have to worry, we have to deal with it. The only answer I have is to create more highways like the NJ turnpike that have car & truck lanes. The more seperation,the better.

  5. Jersey Devil Says:

    I am looking forward to reading the rest of the book. I am constantly telling my wife there is a psycology to driving and when I showed her the book she said “Oh My God” as to justify all I have been saying. I wish I had the chance to go to college. I could do an entire thesis on this subject for a pshcology degree.

  6. Dave Says:

    I kind of agree. I wonder what will have to change though for that to happen.

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