Some motorists see big-rig trucks -- the 800-pound gorillas of the road -- as dangerous, but generally they are only as dangerous as car drivers make them.

For the most part semi-trailers and other trucks that crisscross our highways and byways are piloted by professional drivers who pride themselves on their hard-won driving skills and on their courtesy. In fact, if you spend a lot of time driving from state to state and take the time to observe the behavior of big-rig truck drivers, you will quickly determine that they are the best and most courteous drivers on the road. So where did the aforementioned nightmare about big-rig trucks originate? Like most myths, it came from a lack of understanding -- in this case, a lack of understanding about what big-rig truckers are up against.

Imagine for minute driving with a paper bag over your inside rearview mirror.

Then imagine you are at the wheel of a vehicle that is nearly as big as a boxcar and is articulated -- meaning the rear portion and the front portion don't turn as one. This gives you some idea of what it is like to be a big-rig driver.

With all this in mind, think of the challenge it must be to change lanes guided only by your side mirrors. Big trucks rarely have rearview mirrors, because the trailer would block the view. As a result, truck drivers cannot easily see what is directly behind their vehicle. While you might have some sense of this, you probably don't know that this blind spot extends at least 30 feet behind the trailer.

"When I'm driving my big-rig, my view of the road is limited," one semi-truck driver told us recently. "There are places in front, behind and on both sides of a big semi-truck where I just can't see what's there at all."

The blind spot alongside the truck extends out several lanes on each side of the vehicle.

If you're driving in one of these areas, and the truck has to change lanes, it may not be possible to see you. Because of this, zipping into these blind spots and staying there, even though the lane ahead is clear, can be dangerous. The important thing is not just to observe what the big-rig driver is doing, but also anticipate what the big-rig driver might do, which could include moving into your lane.

The same holds true at an intersection, because trucks are not as maneuverable as cars. When a truck makes a sharp turn, the driver must swing wide. Because the driver's mirror is fixed to the tractor, during a turn the driver often can't see anything on the right side of the truck, so it's very risky to pull alongside of a truck turning right even though it seems the lane is clear.

Even the area right in front of a big-rig truck can include a blind spot. Can you see a small object directly in front of your front bumper? Neither can a truck, but with a truck, the invisible area can extend up to four car lengths. Because of this, it is dangerous to pass a semi and then cut in front of it.

Remember, most truck drivers have excellent skills and exhibit courteous behavior. Understanding the special circumstances they encounter behind the wheel can help make you a much safer driver.

Luigi Fraschini, Cleveland-based contributing editor of Driving Today, writes frequently about safety advancements.



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