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Big Rigs and Cars: Tips for Coexisting on the Highway

Imagine your doctor has ordered you to exercise on a running track surrounding a college football practice field. You must use the track and share it with the university’s athletes. Sometimes, 350-pound linemen lumber along, blocking your way, but then they’ll break into a sprint until you can feel their breath and sweat. Meanwhile, lightning-fast defensive backs brush by on both sides. Everyone is required to be there, but a misstep by anyone will end badly.

Apply this to the relationship between your vehicle and big rigs on the highway. Everyone has a right to the highway, but failure to cooperate–appreciate others’ challenges–can result in disaster.

Unfortunately, the relationship between four-wheelers and big rigs makes divorce court seem like a birthday party. I’ve been on both sides, frustrated by “truck races” (big rigs running side-by-side, 30 mph below the pace of traffic), and nervous when a car driver inexplicably came to a near stop in front of my 18-wheeler in heavy interstate traffic. As a tire-company test driver, I held a commercial driver’s license. I’ve driven trucks weighing up to 80,000 pounds on both the highway and test track. (The web page macdemere.net/videos.html shows me doing some extreme demonstration driving in a Freightliner.)

Studies by the American Trucking Associations and the Federal Motor Carrier Association say that wrecks involving cars and trucks are often caused by four-wheeler drivers. Also, you—and your passengers—will almost always lose in a collision with a large truck. (The truck driver and others on the highway may lose, too.)

Here are some tips that will help both you and professional drivers.

Imagine the autobahn: Herding 40 tons at 70 mph feels a lot like running 155 mph on the German autobahn, which I’ve also done. The stopping distance and accident-avoidance ability of the Freightliner on Interstate 26, and the Mercedes on A1 were roughly the same. Picture yourself on the autobahn, but you’re going a fuel-saving 60 mph. (Gas is in the neighborhood of $8 per gallon in Germany.) I, as the fast guy, must be prepared for traffic to change lanes or stop without warning, while you, the slowpoke, must avoid pulling in front of me or diving for the exit past the last moment. Now, reverse roles.

Give a workin’ man (or woman) a break (and a brake): Driving a truck is a hard way to make a living: There’s no fun at the truck driver’s destination, as he usually has to unload the cargo. Look far ahead and aspire to recognize when a truck driver might need to change lanes. If you see emergency vehicle lights on the right shoulder, know that most state laws require the truck driver to move left. (Many say you do, too.)

Move on by: Either pass or stay behind trucks. If you can’t see the truck driver’s eyes in his mirrors, he hasn’t seen you. Since those mirrors are shaking like a wet dog, even then, he may not notice you. Imagine you are invisible to the trucker: You probably are.

Accelerator or brakes: If a truck driver engages his turn signal as you are passing, push either the accelerator or the brake pedal firmly. Get past the truck–NOW–or drop back. There might be a right-lane-blocking accident ahead: That happened to me. My choices were to slam into the spinning car—and potentially injure the driver—or change lanes with the hope there was room. (There was. Or maybe the car driver gave me–and herself–a break.)

As your mother said, if you all don’t play nice and follow the rules, someone could get hurt. Or a lot worse.

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Mac Demere
Mac Demere is a veteran automotive journalist and a recovering race car driver. He raced in the 24 Hours of Daytona and NASCAR Southwest Tour series, and co-drove to victory in five 24-hour races. In addition he was a certified test driver for a major tire maker. He currently is an instructor for an advanced teen driving school.

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