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Defensive driving

Defensive driver training isn't the most popular topic of conversation around the truck stop lot. In fact, most experienced truck drivers will tell you their driving skills are well up to snuff, thank...

Defensive driver training isn’t the most popular topic of conversation around the truck stop lot. In fact, most experienced truck drivers will tell you their driving skills are well up to snuff, thank you very much, they’ve never had a crash (that was their fault) and they don’t need some safety-type telling them to slap fender mirrors on their shiny new tractors.

But let those same drivers see their rigs crumpled up roadside and they’ll be singing a different tune. Besides saving trucks, cargo and maybe even some valuable lives, defensive driving is the best way to prevent crashes – even the ones that might not be considered the truck driver’s fault.

When it comes to defensive driving, visual skills are essential.

There are two kinds of vision: acute and peripheral. Acute, or central vision, is straight-ahead vision that gives a clear and accurate image. Peripheral or side vision is the total visual area outside your central vision (up to 180 degrees).

Don’t assume that you’re able to see everything with your peripheral vision. Try putting two fingers down on your wrist about two inches away from your wristwatch. Stare at them. I bet you can’t tell what time it is. That’s a pretty good indication of what you can’t see if you don’t turn your head to check your mirrors.

Are you focusing far enough ahead? Your acute vision should be leading your vehicle by at least 20 seconds. Try this exercise as you drive: Select a clearly visible point that you estimate to be 20 seconds ahead and begin counting. How long did it take to reach the object? Most people find the object they selected is much closer than they thought.

At 100 km/h you are travelling 28 metres per second. This means you should focus at least 420 metres or half a kilometre down the road.

In the city, you should focus two to three blocks ahead of your vehicle to blend smoothly into traffic and plan ahead for changing traffic patterns.

Hazards can include weather, as well as other potential obstacles including pedestrians, cyclists and drivers.

Scan for hazards as follows:

1. Focus ahead as far as possible;

2. Let your eyes fall back to the vehicle directly in front of you;

3. Scan as far to the left as possible using your acute vision. If you have a fender mirror, check it as you scan;

4. Check the left side mirrors;

5. Repeat the pattern, but scan to the right in items 3 and 4.

Use your turn signals early enough – at least three to five seconds – to communicate your intentions and determine what other drivers will do in response. Use your horn to alert others, and establish eye contact with road users who present a potential hazard. And use your hazard lights when you’re travelling at a speed considerably less than the posted speed limit; for example when you notice a major change in traffic flow ahead and must slow down or stop, or when you’re proceeding at a traffic light and want to warn surrounding traffic of your slower rate of acceleration. Remember – communication is a two-way street. Keep an eye out for what other road users are telling you.

The best way to avoid sudden and risky stops is to maintain a safe following distance.

As a rule of thumb, allow one second of following distance for every three metres of vehicle length. And for speeds over 65 km/h add a two second safety margin to the total.

It takes about three-quarters of a second for your brain to realize you need to stop. At 100 km/h, that means you’ve already travelled 21 metres. It takes another three-quarters of a second for your foot to react to your brain. That’s another 21 metres. Add to that the time it takes to stop the vehicle once the brakes have been applied, which varies according to the size, type and weight of your vehicle. Needless to say, you will cover a significant length of asphalt before your brain, physical actions and physics bring your rig to a complete stop.

US lawyers specializing in trucking-related accidents say that, after poor driver training, speed is the most frequent contributing factor to commercial driver error resulting in crashes.

Certainly drivers should respect posted speed limits. But drivers of heavy vehicles should also be aware that the posted speed limit may be too fast for their vehicles, especially on ramps leading on or off the highway. Truck drivers should also reduce speed when driving in poor weather conditions, or when approaching the crests of curves or hills, and should always allow for poor visibility at night.

Clearly, defensive driving has nothing to do with who’s at fault, or even whether you’re an experienced driver with a squeaky clean record. Defensive driving is about developing and practicing good decision-making that will allow you to predict and react proactively to real or perceived hazards. And it’s about keeping that new rig as bright and shiny as the day you drove it off the lot.

– George Wilson has been supervisor, training services for Markel since 2005. Prior to joining Markel, George spent 27 years as an O/O and company driver. Markel is the country’s largest trucking insurer providing more than 50 years of service to the transportation industry.Please send comments to

George Wilson

Truck News

Truck News

Truck News is Canada's leading trucking newspaper - news and information for trucking companies, owner/operators, truck drivers and logistics professionals working in the Canadian trucking industry.
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