Sharing the Road

Many drivers have had this nightmare: A huge semi-trailer truck is bearing down on them. Smoke is streaming from its exhaust pipe; its airhorns are blaring, and, though you in your little car stand right in its way... it's not going to stop!

Many motorists look at big-rig trucks as the 800-pound gorillas of the road -- they do what they want to do -- but that is far from an accurate picture. Semi-trailer trucks and other trucks that criss-cross our highways and byways are piloted by professional drivers who pride themselves on their hard-won driving skill and on their courtesy. In fact, if you spend a lot of time driving from state-to-state and take the time to observe the behavior of big-rig truck drivers, you will quickly determine that they are the best and most courteous drivers on the road.

So where did the aforementioned nightmare about big-rig trucks originate? Like most myths, it came from a lack of understanding -- in this case, a lack of understanding about what big-rig truckers are up against.

Imagine for minute driving with a paper bag over your inside rear view mirror. Then imagine you are at the wheel of a vehicle that is nearly as big as a boxcar and is articulated, meaning the rear portion and the front portion don't turn as one. This gives you some idea of what it is like to be a big-rig driver.

With all this in mind, think of the challenge it must be to change lanes guided only by your side mirrors. Big trucks rarely have rear view mirrors because the trailer would block the view. As a result, truck drivers cannot easily see what is directly behind their vehicle. While you might have some sense of this, you probably don't know that this blind spot extends at least 30 feet behind the trailer.

"The truck driver's view of the road is limited," said Guy Walenga, engineering department manager for U.S. commercial operations at Bridgestone/Firestone, who works closely with the trucking industry. "There are places in front, behind, and on both sides of a big semi truck where the driver may not be able to see you at all."

The blind spot alongside the truck extends out several lanes on each side of the vehicle. If you're driving in one of these areas, and the truck has to change lanes, it may not be possible to see you. Because of this, zipping into these blindspots and staying there, even though the lane ahead is clear, can be dangerous. The important thing is not just to observe what the big rig driver is doing, but also anticipate what the big rig driver might do, which could include moving into your lane.

The same holds true at an intersection, because trucks are not as maneuverable as cars. When a truck makes a sharp turn, the driver must swing wide. Because the driver's mirror is fixed to the tractor, during a turn the driver often can't see anything on the right side of the truck, so it's very risky to pull alongside of a truck turning right even though it seems the lane is clear.

Even the area right in front of a big rig truck can include a blind spot. Can you see a small object directly in front of your front bumper? Neither can a truck, but with a truck the invisible area can extend up to four car lengths. Because of this, it is dangerous to pass a semi and then cut in front of it.

"Stay out of these blind spots as much as possible," Bridgestone/Firestone's Walenga warned. "If you must enter a blind spot, try to make sure you're only briefly passing through it to get to a more visible and much safer location. Remember, if you can't see the truck's side mirrors, there's no way the truck driver can see you."

The bottom line: most truck drivers have excellent skills and exhibit courteous behavior. Understanding the special circumstances they encounter behind the wheel can help make you a much safer driver.

Cleveland-based auto journalist Luigi Fraschini has a great deal of respect for America's over-the-road truck drivers.