On the Road

Why We Need Good Driver Training

October 29, 2013

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The prospect of descending the Montreal River Hill, to the north and west of Sault Ste. Marie on Ontario's Hwy 17, used to terrify me. Before I had really cut my teeth in trucking, I had heard all the old-timers' tales of coming down that hill backwards on sheer ice, dodging the moose as they went. (While it's true the hill has a nasty habit of icing up dangerously in the spring and fall, I doubt any actually went down the hill backwards. Sideways, maybe. It's a stinky bit of road.)

Back then, in the early 1980s, I was driving a mid-70s-vintage Freightliner COE pulling A-train double tankers. Wiggle-wagons and icy hills give even the best drivers heartburn. I had a couple of years of experience, and that was before ABS -- and the truck did not have an engine brake.

That I'm writing this indicates I made it down in one piece, and over the years there have been many more hills like it: Donner Pass, The Grapevine, Loveland Pass, British Columbia's Hwy 3, the Fraser River Canyon and The Coquihalla Highway, I-80 east of Salt Lake City ...

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I once took my chances on a mountain pass in West Virginia, going over one of the tunnels on I-77. I had a flammable load in a tanker and didn't want to run 70 miles off route -- and unpaid -- to get around the tunnel. Going over it seemed like a good alternative. Likewise, that I'm writing this ...

I had the benefit of a few very good drivers teaching me the craft of trucking. Exposure to big hills was limited in my journeyman days, but there were a few where I learned that I shouldn't trust my engine brake on a big hill at 50 mph. I was advised to run hills at no more than half the posted speed limit, or about the same speed and gear I'd use to climb the hill.

That advice has served me well over the years. That I'm writing this ... But there were moments when I wished I was in Kansas rather than British Columbia. Like they say in aviation, it's better to be on the ground wishing you were flying than the other way around.

Which brings me to our featured video. I shot this in October while on a motorcycle tour of the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia and North Carolina. I had spent a night in a cool old motel near Spruce Pine, N.C., just off the parkway. Just around the corner from the motel was this big red-and-yellow sign warning truckers of the dangers of a steep and winding road, N.C. Route 226.

Since steep winding hills are made for motorcycles, I decided to check it out. It was a serious hill, and also a truck route. Descending the hill, I started thinking about how a driver with a heavy load would handle such a hill. It would be taxing, indeed. I decided to run the hill a second time with my iPhone camera jammed behind my windshield to record the trip.

Upon reviewing the video, I thought it would make a good example of how a driver, like me in the early days, could get himself into some serious trouble by not heeding the warnings. I narrated the video from the imaginary perspective of just such a driver.

Suspend your disbelief for a few minutes, pretend the sound of my motorcycle engine is a Jake Brake, and join me for a trip down a truly hair-raising hill. It's a 3-mile ride on a 14% grade with two hairpin 180-degree turns and a bunch of less threatening curves. It's narrow, too, and the drop-off is dramatic.

Roads like this are no place for rookie drivers to learn hill driving techniques, but I can't imagine how schools in Kansas, Nebraska or Indiana could possibly prepare drivers for such an experience.  

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Author Bio

Jim Park

Equipment Editor

Truck journalist 13 years, commercial driver 20 years. Joined us in 2007. Specializes in technical/equipment material (including Tire Report), brings real-world perspective to test drives.

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