Sharing the Road with the Big Rigs

Big rig

As we all know, a huge segment of our economy is dependent upon goods delivered by tractor trailer.  Sharing the road with the big rigs is a fact of life and it’s vital that we do it safely.  Considering the laws of gross tonnage, it makes no sense to tangle with an 80,000 pound truck.  So how can everyone from compact car drivers to commercial truckers get along on busy roadways? Understanding and following some of the basic safety rules is a good start.

First consider that white line that appears on the pavement across the travel lane at intersections with stop signs or traffic lights.  Most of us were taught that this is the Stop Line; it indicates the point at which a stop is intended or required to be made.  Unfortunately, for many drivers that definition faded away right after high school driver’s education class.  We roll through it as if it doesn’t really mean anything.  So why is it there?

If you’ve ever driven a tractor trailer you might have a better appreciation for why motorists are supposed to stop at that line prior to proceeding into the intersection.  Maneuvering a long vehicle, especially a tractor trailer (which often has a 53’ long trailer) around corners is not easy.  A lot of room is required including space in other lanes as the truck makes its way round the corner.  If another motorist has coasted beyond the stop line, there probably won’t be enough room for the truck to complete the turn without the other vehicle backing up.  That’s a pretty awkward and potentially unsafe spot to be in. 

The diagram below illustrates this pretty clearly.  The lesson is clear; to avoid conflicts stop at or behind the stop line.  Look around to see if a truck is about to make a turn before proceeding from a stop sign.

Image source:

Here’s another tip about sharing the road with tractor trailers.  For the same reasons illustrated above, these trucks often make very wide right turns.  Sometimes it appears there might be just enough room to pass by the truck on the right.  This could be tempting, but is definitely a bad idea.  Drivers need to be aware of their surroundings and understand the potential issues when in close proximity to large trucks. If that truck starts turning right you’ll be between a rock and a hard place.  More literally, getting caught between the curb and a truck making a wide right turn is not the place to be!

It can be very frustrating to be behind a truck on a two-lane road, especially if the road is hilly or has a lot of curves.  The best advice is to relax and enjoy the scenery, but if you are in a hurry that is difficult to do and passing a truck on a road such as this can be a very unsafe move.

No-passing zones are designed with safety as the primary goal.  We all know it is hazardous anytime we enter the oncoming traffic lane.  But doing this in a no-passing zone puts this in the extremely dangerous category. 

No-passing zones are created due to inhibited lines of sight.  In other words, if a motorist cannot see very far down the road due to a curve or hill then the road markings will reflect this with a solid yellow line on your side of the center- this means there isn’t enough room to pass!  Consider the chart below that’s used to determine these distances.  The yellow line isn’t there to annoy you or make you late for work.  It means you don’t have enough space to pass safely- you can’t know what’s just a few hundred feet in front of you in the oncoming lane.  Consider that a vehicle moving at 60MPH is traveling at 88 feet per second.  Two opposing vehicles each moving at 65MPH have a closure rate of almost 200 feet per second.  It’s no wonder that over 1,000 feet of visibility down the road is required to pass safely.    



Source:  Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways, U.S. Department of Transportation 2009 Edition, revised May 2012

Lastly, let’s talk blind spots.  All vehicles have “blind spots”, areas outside the vehicle that can’t be seen by the driver.  If you’re driving a passenger car you can eliminate nearly all of these with proper mirror adjustment.  See Dave Darnley’s recent Safety Net post entitled, “Automobile Mirror Adjustments to Eliminate Blind Spots” for details.  However, a tractor trailer has more blind spots and they are significantly larger.  The best advice is to allow a lot of room all the way around a tractor trailer.  Remember, if you can’t see the truck driver’s mirror, he can’t see you. 



Sharing the road safely with all users, from pedestrians and bicyclists all the way up to the largest commercial vehicle, is important for us all.  Follow all the traffic laws, allow plenty of following distance from the vehicle in front of you, and give a little extra room to those operating the big rigs.  If you’re a commercial driver, understand the immense responsibility you have when behind the wheel of a truck that weighs 20 times more than most vehicles and is at least six times longer.  Together we can make the roadways safer for everyone.  Let’s work to turn around the recent increase in traffic fatalities so we can all arrive alive.  For more information check out the resources from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. 

By Randy Klatt