Author: Jason W. Konvicka, Personal Injury Attorney
With Spring Break just around the corner and summer vacations not far behind, Americans are preparing to spend more hours on the highway and travel more miles than any other time of the year. These road trips are a time for fun and celebration, but these good times require drivers to exercise care and vigilance to prevent things from turning tragic.
For automobile drivers and passengers, a collision with a truck—especially a loaded tractor trailer—can have serious consequences. After the fact, it may not make much difference to the injured or dead which driver caused the accident, but studies by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) show that tractor trailer drivers are more likely to be involved in collisions than operators of smaller motor vehicles.
Truck driver fatigue, driver substance abuse, poor truck maintenance, inadequate driver and safety training, as well as tight delivery schedules may play a role in tractor trailer accidents. What's a driver to do?
Be Aware and Be Defensive
Fortunately, an automobile driver can employ a number of defensive driving measures that can reduce the risk of colliding with a tractor trailer. First, it’s important that automobile drivers recognize and respect the operational limitations of tractor trailers. Tractor trailers do not have the same ability to maneuver in traffic that cars do. Always keep this in mind as you drive with trucks nearby. For example, where a car traveling 55 mph can come to a stop within about 265 feet, it can take a large truck more than twice that distance to stop completely.
This limitation leads to an important safety rule: Always keep your vehicle a safe distance behind or in front of a tractor trailer. Should you need to stop suddenly, you want the truck behind you to have enough space in which to stop without striking your car's rear end. Likewise, you want to be able to stop your own vehicle if the truck in front of you slows down suddenly. Never follow a truck closely or let one follow you closely—change lanes and avoid potential disaster.
Pass With Care
A corollary to the safe following distance rule involves situations where the automobile driver passes a truck and then abruptly cuts back into the truck's travel lane without leaving sufficient space between the truck and car. Such an unexpected move can force the truck driver to slam on his brakes, endangering not just the vehicle cutting in front, but also others close by. Make sure you have safely passed a truck, leaving plenty of distance between the two of you, before you attempt to move back into the truck's travel lane.
Travel Where You Can See and Be Seen
You may have heard about "blind spots" or "no-zones". Most vehicles, even cars, have blind spots—these are spaces you cannot see in your rear or side-view mirrors. These "no-zones" for most tractor trailers are around the left rear, right front, and the back, and they can be quite large areas. For your safety, you shouldn’t position your vehicle in a blind spot for more than a few seconds. When your car moves into a blind spot while it passes a truck, the truck driver can't see you or your car. The most immediate danger is that the truck driver will pull left or right into your travel lane without seeing you, causing a collision.
What can you do to reduce the risk of such a collision? Do not travel alongside a tractor trailer for longer than it takes you to move past the truck at a reasonable speed. This sounds simple enough, but it’s not unusual for many of us to find ourselves cruising down a major highway beside a truck, sometimes for several miles at a time. The road ahead is clear, the weather is good, and we think nothing of it.
Make it a habit as you approach a tractor trailer to either pass the truck immediately or slow down in your lane and drop back to a position where the truck driver can see your vehicle easily in his side mirror. Likewise, before you begin passing a truck, make sure it doesn't have its left turn signal activated and that it doesn't appear to be moving, even slightly, towards your lane of travel. These are indications the truck driver is contemplating a lane change. You can't just assume the driver knows you're there or that he will wait for you to complete your pass before he moves into your lane. Maybe he will, but maybe he won't!
Stay Out of Harm’s Way in the Event of a Breakdown
Sometimes, stopping your vehicle on the highway or on the shoulder is unavoidable. Remember, however, that there are few things more dangerous to all passengers and vehicles on the road than another vehicle stalled in a travel lane. If there is any way you can drive your vehicle entirely off the highway and also off the shoulder, do so.
Think ahead. If your vehicle seems to be developing mechanical problems or your gas gauge is near "empty", don't wait to take action to resolve these difficulties. Many a fatality has occurred when a tractor trailer driver fails to recognize soon enough that the vehicle ahead in his travel lane is at a dead stop. The trucker doesn’t stop in time and crashes into the rear of the stalled vehicle. Ordinarily, the automobile's occupants don't stand a chance under these circumstances.
It is best for you and your passengers to get out of harm's way entirely, and that is best achieved by exiting your broken down vehicle from the highway. After you activate your hazard lights, get as far off the road as possible and as quickly as you can.
Keep in mind that abandoning your vehicle on the road itself or only barely on the shoulder is extremely dangerous for approaching vehicles. On the other hand, it may be equally dangerous for you and your passengers to stay in your vehicle or try to push it off the road. Use good judgment under all circumstances. As soon as you are able, contact the state and/or local police to alert them to the road hazard. Law enforcement officers can warn approaching traffic of the hazard, reroute traffic safely around your broken down vehicle, and have it moved off the road promptly.
At night, vehicles stopped on the road or shoulder become even more dangerous. It can be almost as hazardous to stop on a highway shoulder after dark as it is to stop in a highway travel lane. Night vision can play strange tricks on what all of us perceive and think we see. Those tail lights far ahead of us may be nothing more than reflectors posted on either side of a driveway. On the other hand, the lights we see in the distance and assume belong to a vehicle in a moving travel lane may belong instead to a car stalled on the road or shoulder. If the driver of a tractor trailer makes this error and follows what he perceives to be a moving lane of travel, he is likely to strike the stopped vehicle whether it is in a travel lane or on the shoulder. Truckers are especially prone to make this mistake at night when they are tired after a long day's drive.
Such accidents are not uncommon, and unfortunately you read about them in the newspaper or see them reported on the television news. The most tragic examples involve cases where a "Good Samaritan" stops in front of or behind the broken down automobile to render aid. The vehicle occupants and the Good Samaritan are checking under the hood of the car or are changing a tire when the tractor trailer slams into the rear of the vehicles.
Don't linger around a broken down vehicle at night. Leave its hazard lights in operation. If you can safely set out flares or triangles, do so, but, otherwise, leave the scene immediately and call for help. Stay in a safe place, out of the danger zone, until help arrives.
Avoid the “Right Turn Squeeze”
Watch out for any tractor trailer making a right turn. Tractor trailers cannot turn on a short radius, and to make a sharp right turn at an intersection, they must "swing wide". This means they often don't approach the intersection entirely in what we think of as the right turn lane. In making a right turn, the truck driver may move towards the left, either partially or completely out of the right lane and into the next lane over. This sometimes confuses the automobile operator approaching the same intersection. You may wrongly assume that the truck is making a left turn or simply moving straight ahead. Don't make this assumption and become the victim of what is commonly called a "right turn squeeze".
In this situation, look first for the tractor trailer's turn signals. Is the right turn signal activated? If so, you know the truck driver is preparing to turn right. Stay in your lane behind the truck. Don't try to squeeze in to the right of the truck thinking you can get the jump on him when the light turns green. Don't pull up to the intersection alongside the tractor trailer and assume the truck driver knows you're there. You will have moved directly into his blind spot.
Just because your driver's side window is directly opposite the truck's right side window doesn't mean the truck driver can look out and see you. Usually, he can't because of his elevation in the truck cab. If the truck driver doesn't know you're there, he’s likely to cut you off as he makes his turn. Suddenly, you could find yourself in the middle of a "squeeze play" between the truck on your left and the curb or parked cars on your right.
Of course, you may have passed beyond the rear turn signals of a long tractor trailer when the trucker first activates his signal. As a result, in the end, you can't rely simply on whether or not the truck's right turn signal is blinking. You have to make a judgment call, and it’s better to err on the side of caution. Before sliding into the space immediately to the right of a tractor trailer at an intersection, keep in mind that the truck may start turning right, directly into your path. When the red light turns green, or as you approach the front end of a truck on your left side, watch the truck carefully for signs it is beginning to move into your lane of travel. If it does, take quick action to avoid it.
Be Considerate of Merging Traffic and Multiple Trucks
There is always the potential for a collision when your vehicle or a tractor trailer is merging into traffic. If you merge into traffic improperly, from the shoulder of a highway, for example, you may cause a nearby tractor trailer to brake or swerve suddenly. This may, in turn, cause a collision. Whenever you see a truck ahead of you merging into traffic, slow down and let the truck merge in front of you. Trucks simply don't have the ability to accelerate as quickly as automobiles do.
The most potentially dangerous place on the road to find yourself is between two tractor trailers—both within a few hundred feet in front of and behind your vehicle. Just imagine what will happen to you and your car if the truck ahead slows down or stops suddenly without warning, and the truck behind you has to do the same when you begin to slow down or stop for the truck ahead. It is not a pretty picture. Remember, you can't see around a tractor trailer to know what is going on in front of it, which means you are unlikely to have any warning of the impending actions of the truck ahead of you.
Help to Improve Your Odds By Driving Safely
There are many ways drivers can share the roads and highways more safely with nearby trucks and tractor trailers. This is not to suggest that truck drivers don’t engage in unsafe behavior themselves—they do. However, whenever there is a collision between an automobile and tractor trailer, the automobile operator and his passengers are much more likely to die in the crash than the truck driver. Statistics tell us that 86 percent of those persons killed in accidents involving large trucks were not occupants of the tractor trailer, they were occupants of passenger vehicles. As a result, it’s the automobile driver who has the most to lose in any collision with a large truck, and it’s up to the automobile driver to keep the odds in his favor by driving defensively whenever he sees tractor trailers and large trucks nearby.
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