Sixth Sense

by James Menzies

CALGARY, Alta. – It’s not easy driving a loaded semi-truck through a snowstorm. Or hail, ice or sleet either for that matter.

But it’s inevitable that any long-haul trucker is going to have to face adverse weather conditions. And that’s when those defensive driving skills that were taught early in your career come in handy.

Alberta Professional Driving School instructor, Paul Grewal, has adopted the following phrase as his company’s slogan: “Think and drive, come home alive.”

And that’s what he stresses to any student the very first time they get behind the wheel of his training rig.

“At first they try to drive just like they’re driving a car, especially in the corners,” says Grewal. “They forget that they have a trailer behind them.”

He emphasizes that leaving more room between the truck and other vehicles is the key to avoiding collisions and keeping a clean drivers abstract.

“They don’t always realize that they need a lot of time to maneuver,” says Grewal. “While driving, you should be keeping at least a four- to six-second distance (between the car in front of you) and you always have to assess if you can go around the vehicle in front of you in case that vehicle breaks down.”

Although it’s easy to preach those common sense defensive driving tips to new truckers, Grewal says they have to get behind the wheel to fully understand the requirements of driving truck.

“It’s real-life and we have to tell them when they are on the road,” says Grewal. “Exercises do help, but not much.”

But even experienced drivers can meet their match if they get overly confident and forget the basic safety rules of thumb. That’s when a split second decision can save their life and the lives of others.

Adonna Briske is an instructor at the Michigan Center for Decision Driving School, where thousands of experienced drivers are put to the test on the company’s skid pads each year.

She says that drivers who were overly confident in their abilities routinely leave the center with a better appreciation of the requirements of driving truck.

“People don’t perceive and react like they think they do and we have one exercise that actually shows you how your perception and reaction works,” says Briske.

In that exercise, drivers approach a series of cones at 60 mph and must change lanes to avoid the cones when a green light flashes on either side of the obstacle.

“They’re supposed to lift off the throttle when they see the green light but when that light goes on, it takes them three-quarters of a second to perceive that the light has come on and three-quarters of a second to react to that,” says Briske. “The green light comes on and they travel straight forward for at least a second and a half without ever turning the wheel and then they say that the light is coming on much later than it actually is.”

Briske says the exercise goes to prove Grewal’s theory that leaving space in front of the truck is the most important element of safe driving.

“That’s the space that’s hardest to keep because you always get people taking space away from you,” she admits.

Other common driving errors that can lead to disaster are driving too fast for road conditions and abusing the brakes.

“For trucks that are not equipped with ABS brakes, slamming on the brakes is the worst thing you can ever do,” warns Briske.

“When you panic and you get on those brakes too hard, you are immediately sending a lot of air pressure to the brake chambers and it locks the wheels up.”

That’s why it’s important to back off of the rear bumper of other vehicles. Briske notes that it takes 302 feet to stop an average truck travelling at 55 mph.

“That’s for a truck that is in perfect condition and all brakes are working together,” says Briske. “No brakes are out of adjustment, there’s a dry roadway and everything is perfect.

Put a little rain or snow on that highway, what’s that going to do to that 302 feet of stopping distance?”

Grewal points out that another factor to consider is what you are hauling.

Liquids and solids respond differently, and loads such as pipes, logs and grain all react differently through corners, posing their own unique challenges. n

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