Defensive Driving Tips: How to Stay Safe Around Tractor-Trailers on the Road

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Imagine you’re driving along, minding your own business, heading out of town on Interstate 270. Suddenly, a big rig in the left lane begins to merge right on top of you, squeezing you out and forcing you to either speed up or slow down. Your heart starts racing, your palms get sweaty, you make your decision—and then maybe you honk at the driver in irritation. What a bully, right?

No, probably not. Driving a tractor-trailer is a little like driving a building on wheels, and it can be incredibly stressful and frustrating for the trucker, especially when other drivers on the road don’t understand proper truck safety techniques.

While the idea that truckers use their size to take advantage on the road is a commonly-held belief, the truth is, in accidents between cars and tractor-trailers, the automobile driver is at fault the majority of the time. In fact, in studies released by the U.S. Department of Transportation, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, and the Federal Highway Administration, car drivers were found to be at fault in roughly 80% of fatal accidents involving tractor-trailers.

Five Tips for Driving Safely Around Tractor-Trailers

Despite the fact that getting into an accident with an 18-wheeler almost always results in injuries, and despite the fact that smaller vehicle passengers are much more likely to die in an accident involving a tractor-trailer, truck safety training is a topic that is barely covered in most Driver’s Education classes.

It’s important for drivers to educate themselves, since most haven’t been taught how to drive around large trucks. Drivers in St. Louis, Missouri, like anyone who lives in or near a major metropolitan area, are more likely to encounter multiple tractor-trailers on the road than those who do most of their driving in more suburban or rural areas. Don’t become a statistic. Here’s how you can keep yourself and your passengers safe on the road:


  • Give Truckers Plenty of Room. All of the other safety tips for driving around tractor-trailers can be summed up by this first tip. Always make plenty of room for truckers, whether you’re passing, cutting in front, or driving behind an 18-wheeler. These trucks are big, heavy, difficult to maneuver, and prone to tire blowouts. You’ve seen those big chunks of black rubber all over the highway. The last place you want to be is next to a semi when the tire goes out, heavy, sharp shards of rubber start flying everywhere, and the trailer starts swerving. In addition, due to their expansive surface area, semi-trucks are also likely to get blown around by the wind, resulting in swerving and unexpected drifts into the opposite lane. The bottom line: When possible, avoid the need for practicing truck safety altogether by steering clear.   


  • Remember How Heavy Trucks Are. Because drivers see trucks on the road all the time, it can be easy to forget just how heavy they really are. Tractor-trailers are routinely loaded to carry 80,000lbs or more, making them about 30-times heavier than the average passenger vehicle. In driving classes, driver’s are typically taught to leave a few car lengths between our vehicle when passing a driver on the road, but that guideline doesn’t work for tractor-trailers. Fully loaded, it takes a semi-truck 40% longer to stop than it takes the average car or SUV. That translates into a stopping distance of 525 feet for a fully-loaded tractor-trailer driving at 65 mph in ideal conditions. Are you sure you want to zip in front of that semi driving downhill in the rain?


  • Be Aware of Blind Spots. All cars have blind spots. Trucks have entire blind zones, commonly called no-zones, particularly on the passenger side. The front no-zone extends about 20-feet from the front of the tractor-trailer, for example, while the rear no-zone extends 200-feet behind the vehicle. That’s right. Truck drivers can’t even see your car until you’re at least 20-feet in front of them or 200-feet behind them. Car drivers should never, ever hang out in these zones or they risk being sideswiped by a trucker who can’t see them. Even when passing, it’s best to move through these zones as quickly as possible. The best rule of thumb is to look for the truck driver’s face in the side mirrors. If you can see the face, then the driver can see you. For more information on truck no-zones, read the No-Zone Fact Sheet.  


  • Practice Proper Passing Technique. The absolute best way to pass a tractor-trailer is as quickly as possible, in the left-hand lane. Remember, the passenger side of a semi-truck is one big blind zone, so the driver is unlikely to see you. When passing, veer as far to the outside part of the lane as you can, since large trucks tend to swerve and drift unexpectedly. Once you’re passed the truck, don’t cut in front too soon. Refer back to our first three tips: Give the truck driver as much room as possible. It can take a fully-loaded truck the length of two to three football fields to come to a complete stop.


  • Don’t Pass a Truck That’s Turning—Especially on the Right. No doubt you’ve seen the stickers posted on the back of every tractor-trailer: “This Truck Makes Wide Turns.” In spite of the posted warning, drivers attempting to pass a semi as it makes a turn is one of the most frequent causes of accidents between tractor-trailers and passenger vehicles—and it’s completely avoidable. Just don’t do it, even when it looks like you have the room to get around. During the turn, the truck driver can’t see anything in the side mirror other than the trailer. Be patient, wait for the driver to complete the turn, and then resume driving.


When driving around tractor-trailers in St. Louis, MO, remember to practice all other safe driving rules as well. Avoid distractions, keep your eyes on the road, and drive safely for the conditions. An 18-wheeler will have a much harder time stopping in a downpour and more difficulty not swerving in a windstorm, for instance. By following these general safety guidelines and focusing on your driving, you can prevent potentially fatal accidents from occuring.

If you have experienced a car accident that you believe was due to the negligence or fault of a semi truck driver, we can help. Contact the experienced team at Walton Telken.


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