Road hash: 6 ways to avoid it

by Mark Sedenquist on June 23, 2006

Does sharing a crowded interstate with big trucks scare you? Do you find large RVs on the road unnerving? Well, you’ve got good reason to be nervous, because when hurtling masses of rubber, glass and steel collide, size does matter.

You’re not the only one feeling jittery. In fact, the big-rig drivers are more scared than you are, because they know something you don’t: Drivers of ordinary passenger vehicles cause much more “road hash” than they do. Professional truckers are, for the most part, well-trained driving experts. They will generally take steps to prevent accidents, but there’s nothing they can do about the unpredictable, sloppy and downright bizarre driving they see from the drivers of ordinary cars and SUVs.

What’s the smart road tripper to do? Pay attention. Here are six driving situations that commonly end in road hash. Keep an eye out for them, and you can steer clear of difficulty.

Trucks’ blind spots. Just about everyone has seen the signs painted on the back of commercial truck trailers: “If you can’t see my face in the mirror, I can’t see you.” Trucks and RVs have large cone-shaped blind spots on the right side extending back from the rear of the truck/trailer. Smaller blind spots exist on the right-front corner of the tractor and on the mid-left side of the truck.

If you find yourself traveling in one of these places, take charge: Either slow down or speed up and pass the truck. If you find yourself traveling in bumper-to-bumper traffic, do not slide back and forth across the lanes through a truck’s right-front blind spot. It is very unnerving — to say the least — for a trucker to run over a car he never saw, but accidents like this occur frequently, even at speeds as low as 5 miles an hour.

Cutoffs. A few years ago, while I was driving a 7.5-ton RV, the kid driving the Audi in front of me was trying to impress his girlfriend with his driving prowess. I was going the speed limit (45 mph) when he cut in front of my RV, and then immediately braked to turn right at a corner less than 20 feet away. I am sure the young woman will never forget the sight of my front bumper crushing the car trunk as I desperately tried to turn the RV to the left. While I saved the kids from serious injury, the accident totaled their car.

I see passenger cars do similar cutoff maneuvers nearly every single day. Without realizing the risk, they try to sneak into small gaps in traffic ahead of trucks, or they zip past a big rig on the left, pull right in front of the heavier vehicle and then immediately slow to make a turn. Many drivers seem to think that since their two-ton vehicle can “turn on a dime,” the 80-ton behemoth bearing down on them can do it, too.

It can’t. It generally takes about 600 feet to completely stop a truck traveling 65 mph. As in my case, professional drivers are often faced with the gut-wrenching decision to purposely wreck their trucks to prevent life-threatening rear-end collisions. What can you do to prevent this? Maintain an even, measured pace as you make your way through heavy traffic.

Big rigs backing up. Professional drivers do it very day, but backing up a 54-foot trailer without hitting anything still takes a lot of time and skill. Sometimes the angles are really tough to see, especially when backing across four lanes or squeezing past other trucks and delivery vans to get into a tiny loading dock in a side alley.

Because backing up requires serious concentration, truck drivers can’t always watch for cars darting around them. Moreover, their already large blind spots can become even bigger when the tractor is a third of the way into a backup arc. So give the big guys a break. Assume the driver has no idea where your car is and proceed accordingly: Either make sure you have his attention before passing, or just stay put until he has finished backing up.

Highway merges. In many states, motor vehicle laws require that highway traffic yield to merging traffic. A noble idea, but in practice, it sometimes leads to a badly choreographed game of “chicken.” As a matter of courtesy and safety, it is wise to watch merging traffic and voluntarily move one lane left to allow the slower-moving traffic access to the right lane.

When I see a truck or RV coming down the entrance ramp in daytime, I try to go one step further, slowing down my vehicle to create a moving buffer between the highway traffic and the merging vehicle. When I know the driver can see my vehicle, I flash my high beams to let him know that I am holding the lane open for him. Once he is safely up to speed, I pass. At night, the maneuver is trickier, as you don’t want to blind a driver trying to control more than 80 tons of cargo. So no high beams, just a slow, steady pace until the truck has safely made its merge. If your vehicle allows it, a quick on-and-off of the low beams will tell the truck driver that he has cleared your vehicle and it is safe to merge into your lane.

Gas pumps and low-hanging branches. RVs are great for road trips, but drivers unaccustomed to the size of such vehicles can sometimes do odd things. Many drivers are skilled at backing RVs into tight spots, but if you ever see one backing up “blind” to a gas pump, you might consider taking your refueling business elsewhere. It doesn’t take much force to bump those pumps off their bases, and you are observing an unsafe RV driver in action.

Likewise, if you are traveling behind one of the larger RVs in areas where there are low-hanging branches, think about backing off some. Novice RV drivers often forget there is an air conditioner on the roof. By keeping your distance, any falling debris will hit the road in front of you instead of the top of your vehicle.

White lines. I could easily fill a few pages with anecdotes of bizarre behavior by RV drivers. An especially common sight is the driver who favors the right edge of his lane.

Some wide RVs look even wider from the driver’s seat. This makes inexperienced drivers uncomfortable with the view of oncoming traffic, so they zip down a two-lane highway hugging the right side of the road. This seemingly cautious behavior is in fact very dangerous, as the right rear tires have a tendency to slip onto the shoulder in these situations. When the driver pulls to the left to compensate, the RV can become unstable and start fishtailing left and right. My advice: Get around these vehicles or back off.

Road trips make fantastic getaway holidays — provided you don’t end up in a tangle with a big rig. You have to share the road, so keep alert, be courteous and drive defensively. Road hash is something we can all do without.

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