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Driving a Truck Safely

Semi Truck Driving Safety Tips

Large truck crashes are a significant problem nationwide. In recognition of these accidents and the potential dangers in the operation of tractor-trailers the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSR) were promulgated years ago. See, 49 C.F.R. 390 et sec. However, there were 144,171 large truck crashes, in a recent year, resulting in 4,808 fatalities and 84,000 injuries. These numbers continue to grow. Each State has issued Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) Manuals as a result of the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986. This act established minimum standards nationally that must be met before a state can issue a commercial driver’s license. As a result, the CDL manuals in each state are almost identical. For convenience, the citations in this article refer to the New York State Commercial Driver’s License Manual.


To be a safe driver a trucker has to know what is going around all around his vehicle. Not looking properly is a major cause of accidents involving trucks. Because stopping or changing lanes can take a lot of distance, knowing what the traffic is doing on all sides of the truck is very important. A trucker must look well ahead to make sure that there is enough room to make these moves safely.

A good truck operator will look at least 12 to 15 seconds ahead. That means looking ahead a distance that the truck will travel in 12-15 seconds. Obviously, this distance is relative to speed. At lower speeds it is the distance of about 1 block. At highway speeds it is about a quarter of a mile. See, NYS Commercial Driver’s License Manual 2.4.1.

Fig 2-5
Figure 1, Open Driving/Open Highway


Of the reported truck accidents, in a recent year, about 25,000 were accident that happened at night. At night a driver can only see as far as the illumination cast by the truck’s headlights. Consequently, a trucker driving at night must drive slowly enough to stop within the distance of the headlights. Driving any faster is referred to as “OVER DRIVING” the headlights. This is a potentially dangerous practice as, by the time the truck operator sees a hazard, the object will be closer than the distance the driver will need to come to a complete stop. In short, “over driving” is essentially the same as driving too fast for the conditions, a condition prohibited by the U S Department of Transportation’s, Federal Motor Carriers Safety Administration.

As a general rule at low beam, a tractor-trailer’s headlights will illuminate about 250 feet in front of the vehicle. High beams will illuminate for approximately 350-500 feet. Subject of course to whether the lights were properly working, adjusted properly and FREE of road debris, mud and dirt.


Mirror adjustments should be made prior to the start of any trip and can be checked accurately only when the trailers are straight.

The mirrors are to be checked to learn of overtaking vehicles. The driver should be vigilant to see what there is to be seen alongside the trailer so as to be in a position to make a quick lane change if needed. Mirrors can also be used to check for tire fires and if the truck is carrying open cargo to see if there are loose straps, ropes, tarps or chains.

Mirrors are essential in lane changes. They should be checked before the change to be certain there is enough room, after the driver signals; to be certain that someone is not entering the blind spot; right after the change is begun to double check that the path remains clear. Making turns also requires multiple viewing of the side mirrors to make certain that the back of the truck will clear any obstacles.

For a driver to correctly use his mirrors he is to look back and forth between each mirror and the road ahead. Focusing on the mirrors for too long a period of time will allow the vehicle to travel quite a distance without knowing what is ahead.

Many large vehicles have curved or convex mirrors that show a wider area than flat mirrors. But every- thing appears smaller and further away than they really are. It is important to realize this and allow for it.

Fig 2-7
Figure 2, Field of Vision Using a Convex Mirror


The formula is simple… Perception distance + Reaction distance + Breaking distance = Total Stopping Distance. Failure to follow it can result in disaster…

The single most important favor in determining stopping distance for a tractor-trailer is the traveling speed. In its simplest, the faster the truck is moving the greater the stopping distance. Stopping distance should not be confused with braking distance. Braking distance for a truck is the measurement of how far a truck travels after the brakes are applied . However, before the truck driver can apply the brakes, he has to first perceive the hazard, and then react ; that is put his foot on the brake pedal.

  • perception distance: This is the distance the vehicle travels from the time the driver’s eyes sees the hazard until the brain recognizes it. The perception time for an alert driver is about 3/4 of a second. At 55 MPH a truck will travel 60 feet in 3/4 of a second.
  • reaction distance: The distance the truck will travel from the time the driver’s brain tells the driver to take his foot off the accelerator until the foot id actually pushing the brake pedal. The average driver has a reaction time of 3/4 of a second. At 55 MPH the truck, therefore will travel an additional 60 feet for a total of 120 feet.
  • braking distance: The distance it takes to stop once the brakes are put on. At 55 MPH on dry pavement with good brakes, it can take a heavy vehicle about 390 feet to stop. It takes about 4 seconds.
  • total stopping distance: At 55 MPH it will take about 6 seconds to stop a truck and the truck will have traveled about 512 feet.

Whenever the driver doubles his speed, it takes about four times as much stopping distance. The truck will have four times the destructive power if it crashes. The lesson to be learned from the chart below is that by simply slowing down the trucker can reduce the braking distance.

Fig 2-11
Figure 3, Chart

The heavier the truck, the more work the brakes must do to stop it, and the more heat they absorb. But, the brakes, tires, springs and shock absorbers on heavy trucks are designed to work with a full load. Empty trucks require greater stopping distances because they have less traction. Traction is friction between the tires and the road surface. Some road conditions reduce traction and call for lower speeds.

  • slippery surfaces: It will take longer to stop and it will be harder to turn without skidding, when the road is slippery. A wet road can double the stopping distance. A safe trucker will reduce his speed about 1/3, from 55 to 35 on a wet road. Packed snow calls for a reduction in speed of or more and if the surface is icy a driver must reduce speed to a crawl.
  • hydroplaning: Water left on the road can lead to hydroplaning. It is like water skiing. The tires lose their contact with the road and have little or no traction. An alert trucker can regain control of his truck by releasing the accelerator and pushing in on the clutch. This will slow the vehicle and let the wheel turn freely. It is impossible to stop the truck by simply using the brake. It does not take a lot of water to hydroplane and it can happen with speeds as low as 30 MPH


When things go wrong, space gives the driver time to think and take action. Therefore, to be safe a driver needs space around his vehicle.

  • space ahead: The most frequent type of reported accidents involving trucks is running into the vehicle ahead. A driver needs at least 1 second for each 10 feet of truck he is operating at speeds below 40 MPH. Over 40 MPH you need 5 seconds for a 40 foot truck and 7 seconds for a 60 foot truck.
  • space behind: Although you cannot stop someone from following your truck too closely, the truck operator can make it safer by staying to the right.
  • space on the sides: It is best to travel in the center of the lane that you are traveling on. A trucker should avoid traveling alongside of another vehicle wherever possible.
  • space for turns: Because of wide turning, it is extremely important for a truck operator to be aware of the space around the truck as he enters and executes the turn.
  • right turns: Turn wide as you complete the turn, keeping the rear of the truck close to the curb to prevent others from passing on the right.

Fig 2-13
Figure 4, Right Turns

  • left turns: Make sure the truck has reached the center of the intersection before starting the turn. If there are two turning lanes, always take the right turn lane. Do not start in the inside lane because you may have to swing right to make the turn. Vehicles on your left can more easily be seen.

    Fig 2-14
    Figure 5, Left Turns

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