From behind the wheel: Common mistakes made by rookie drivers

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I work as driver-trainer for a longhaul carrier in Ontario. My trainees have ranged from a pilot to construction engineer to welder. Almost all of them have had no over-the-road experience.

Through my experience as a driver-trainer, I’ve noticed some common mistakes made by many inexperienced truck drivers:

Missing signs: Many new drivers fail to notice speed limits, highway exits, lane restrictions, lane endings, truck stop exits – you name it.

I took my eyes off the road for two minutes one day after my trainee and I crossed the US border in Port Huron, Mich. and we ended up on I-94 south instead of taking I-69 to Lansing, Mich. It took us two extra hours to battle our way through the rush hour traffic in Detroit on the way to Chicago.

Forgetting about the trailer: We’re turning left at an intersection with four-way stop signs and another truck on the left is about to turn into our road.

Our CB comes to life and the other driver tells us to go ahead first. The trainee starts turning left and the corner is really tight.

I look into his side mirror and start telling him to watch it as he slams the brakes on his own.

A second later our CB screams, “Hey! What are you doing? Is this your first day driving or what?” I look out the door: we have almost hit the poor guy’s truck with the side of our trailer! The trainee got lucky this time, but he was turning too sharp and too fast – forgetting about the 53-foot trailer behind.

Painful passing: When rookies pass, they usually wait until the last moment.

By the time they do decide to get over into the passing lane, there are vehicles flying by with no gaps in the traffic.

As a result, our truck often gets stuck behind a “slow crawler”; especially if we’re on a steep grade and have 44,000 lbs of freight.

Driving too fast: New drivers are used to small fast vehicles and they often ignore “safe speed” signs on on/off ramps.

When they get ready to exit an Interstate, they start slowing down too late – forgetting how heavy the vehicle is. “Jack rabbit acceleration” is a favourite from stops and should be avoided.

Zig-zag backing: Too much work on the steering wheel is common. When the truck is backing, it’s going in zig-zags.

Trainees forget that if there’s even the smallest angle between the tractor and trailer, the trailer will be drifting sideways – no additional steering required.

Poor map skills: I was driving one day in Illinois and the trainee sat in the passenger seat. I asked him to find the location of our truck on the US map.

I drove 30 miles and he still didn’t know where we were, even though I had told him the Interstate number and the name of the small town we had just passed.

When you can’t read a map, all kinds of trouble can happen to you – especially in a big city.

One new guy got lost in Chicago recently and he damaged his trailer by going under a bridge that was too low.

Fear of air horns: We were on Hwy. 401 in Toronto the other day, doing roughly 100 km/h and a big rig in the right lane started drifting towards us, over the line.

My trainee tried to escape left but there was a car in the passing lane.

He stepped on the brakes and hit his…electric horn! I urged him to use the air horn and he started grabbing the air near the top left corner of the windshield but couldn’t find the cord!

Don’t be afraid to use the air horn so other drivers can hear you.

Negotiating on-ramps: When new drivers see a car trying to merge from the on-ramp, they often panic and try to change lanes.

I tell them, “If you see a car coming up on the on-ramp, you should: (a) do nothing; or (b) slow down; or (c) change lanes – in that order.”

Method A (do nothing) works 99% of the time because we’re slow and the ramp traffic gets up to speed fast.

Method C on the other hand means you are fooling around with an 80,000-lb vehicle that is over 70 feet long.

This is dangerous and can scare other drivers.

I’ll probably upset some people by saying this but I think new truck drivers should not be allowed to jump from Class G to Class A/Z licences.

If they were required to go first from G to D/Z (straight truck), get some experience and only then train for Class A/Z, our highways would be much safer. n

– Sergei Dratchev is an over-the-road truck driver and driver-trainer based in Ontario.

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