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Give a wide berth to tractor-trailers, it might save your life

A charter bus collided with a tractor trailer on Interstate 64 about 25 miles west of Charlottesville, Va. in November injuring more than 20 people. Icy conditions contributed to the crash but safety experts warn that vehicles often follow tractor trailers too closely.
A charter bus collided with a tractor trailer on Interstate 64 about 25 miles west of Charlottesville, Va. in November injuring more than 20 people. Icy conditions contributed to the crash but safety experts warn that vehicles often follow tractor trailers too closely. (Virginia State Police)

Driving south on Interstate 95 near the Fort McHenry Tunnel on a recent weekday, a tractor-trailer’s rear bumper sticker reveals the level of frustration behind the wheel: “Warning - Stay Back 300 FT. Not Responsible For Broken Windshield.” There are two interesting things evident in that message. First, that every single idea contained in that brief phrase is wrong. Three hundred feet, the distance of a football field, is not the recommended distance between cars and trucks (picture the absurdity of that during the rush hour bumper-to-bumper crawl). And, yes, if something unsecured fell from the back on this particular vehicle, the driver and his employee could be held legally responsible. But second, the driver is obviously unhappy by the behavior of the other vehicles around him and is pleading for respect.

That second circumstance is worth exploring. Across the country, truck traffic is on the rise. They’re moving nearly three quarters (by weight) of all the freight in the United States and Americans, thanks to an improved economy, are buying more stuff than ever before. That means cars and trucks are sharing the roads like never before. And that can raise problems. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 5,000 Americans died in truck-involved crashes in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available. In Maryland, the numbers have been worsening, too: 5,906 crashes involving a truck, up from 5,833 in 2014. And while truck-involved crashes are less common than crashes involving other types of vehicles, they are more apt to produce fatalities — the natural result of 80,000-pound vehicles striking 3,000-pound vehicles.

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But, wait, those numbers can be misleading. As a percentage of overall crashes, trucks are relatively small. And when compared to vehicle miles traveled (how engineers measure traffic volume), it’s not getting worse; there are simply more opportunities for bad things to happen. And whose fault is that? Most often when cars collide with trucks, it’s the fault of the driver of the car. In Maryland, for example, here’s a telling number from the State Highway Administration: Of the 779 rear-end collisions involving a truck that took place in 2018, 90.1% were the result of a car rear ending a truck while just 9.9% were because a truck rear ended a car. Say what you will about truck drivers, they are more likely to give proper braking distance than car drivers.

And that’s exactly the core of the problem. Car drivers don’t often realize what it’s like to steer a tractor-trailer, how they can’t stop on a dime, how they have blind spots, how their weight causes them to pick up speed on downgrades. The following distance behind a truck? The classic instruction is to leave four seconds which means the faster the speed, the greater the length. Over 40 miles per hour, and you ought to add an extra second. That doesn’t fit a bumper sticker, of course, but it’s what the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has been recommending for years.

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So anyone looking for a New Year’s resolution for 2020, here’s a golden opportunity. Dedicate the coming year to giving a break to the professional drivers steering those 18-wheelers. You can start by staying out of blind spots (if you can’t spot the truck driver in either of his side view mirrors, he can’t see you either). Give extra space when you pass a truck. Anticipate wide turns. Don’t follow closely, especially in adverse weather or high speed. And don’t abruptly cut in front of a truck. Because of their weight, the bigger vehicles need more time to slow down.

Safety experts think that even with more traffic than ever on the roads, the U.S. can reduce the number of truck-involved crashes if they can simply get the drivers around them to make better decisions. We have certainly advocated for the trucking industry to improve safety in the past whether it involved side guards on trailers or stricter work rules to combat driver fatigue. But simply educating motorists to stop tailgating is an awfully good idea, too. Ridiculous bumper stickers warning about broken windshields won’t do the job but perhaps a little more awareness of the problem will.

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