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Safety: A Driver's Advice

August 24, 2000

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Editor's Note: Tom Hawks, a driver for Overnite Transportation and the American Trucking Associations' Truck Driver of the Year, wrote the following for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis in response to a rash of accidents involving big trucks in Tennessee.
What would it be like if trucks stopped rolling for just one week?
Supermarkets would not have their shelves stocked. Medicine for the sick, clothes for the family, gas for your car, parts for manufacturing -- all would be in short supply. Prices would skyrocket. Our economy is robust and growing, putting large demands on truckers to make deliveries. It takes a special individual to drive long hours on the nation's highways to bring the products you need daily. As a professional truck driver, I know what it takes to do the job safely.
I also know that some truckers do not care enough to do the job right. A rash of incidents of carelessness has embarrassed the trucking industry, and killed and injured people.

Our industry does not condone such behavior. Trucking companies and the federal government have programs in place to eliminate bad drivers. The Commercial Driver's License program requires truckers to pass stringent written tests and physical exams every two years, and to know how to react in emergencies. Drivers are subject to random drug tests; a trucker who is found to be under the influence faces harsh punishment.
We have to keep our trucks mechanically fit. We are subject to inspection at highway weigh stations. We must keep a logbook of our daily activities on the job, to show that we do not speed and that we get enough rest. If you do wrong long enough, sooner or later it will catch up with you.
The highway is my workplace. I want it to be as safe as possible, so I can make it to my destination and back. I have a family, too. I don't want to hurt anyone. Each year, I go into high schools in Memphis to teach kids getting their first driver's license how to share the roads safely with big trucks. I set up situation in which kids get in my truck and look for a car I have put in my blind spot. This allows the kids to see the world as I see it.
But there are some points that all motorists -- not just young ones -- need to understand about big trucks:
· If you can't see me in my mirror, I can't see you, either. If you are in such a blind spot, move out of it. If something goes wrong, I need more than one way out to avoid an accident; do not block my ways out. Pass if you must, but wait until it is safe to do so, do it quickly, and move on.
· Highway Construction Zones are dangerous and require special attention. People are working. The roadway is narrow and barrels and cones are strewn about, making navigation tedious. Many people get careless and accidents happen. Slow down and observe posted speed limits and other cautions in construction zones. Put on your four-way flashers if you can. Keep an eye out for problems and be prepared to stop.
· Motorists often misunderstand the stopping distances a truck needs. We carry loads of as much as 80,000 pounds. If I am driving 55 mph and someone cuts me off and causes me to hit the brakes, I will need the length of A FOOTBALL FIELD to stop! And if it is raining or snowing, or any other condition that makes traction less than perfect, throw away the book!
· Professional truckers keep a 4 second interval of distance from other vehicles. You need to watch out for the ones who don't!
· I shake my head in disbelief each year when I see cars and trucks speeding through school zones. It is truly a wonder that more children are not killed. Observe the flashing signs, slow down, and expect the unexpected.
· I constantly see families on Interstate highways with back seats full of kids, none of them wearing seatbelts. They're asking for trouble. If a car is going 30 mph and his something stationary, an 8-pound baby lying unrestrained in the front seat will hit the dashboard with the force of 600 pounds of pressure! In a wreck at 70 mph, a 75-pound kid, unbuckled in the back seat, becomes a missile.
· Flat tires or breakdowns are the only reasons you should ever park on the shoulder or in an emergency lane. I pull two trailers. The back trailer has a sway in its movements of about 1-1/2 feet to each side, making the total swing about 3 feet. If I am passing you on the shoulder, and I hit wind turbulence or a rut in the road that makes the rear trailer sway to the side, you are in trouble if you are parked too close to the main travel lanes. If you have kids who are out of the car, they have a tendency to dart into traffic without warning. If I am traveling at a high rate of speed, that makes things very dangerous.
· Don't cut off trucks in traffic. Drive DEFENSIVELY, not OFFENSIVELY. What we now call "Road Rage" is simply IMPATIENCE! Don't carry your problems to the vehicle and act them out.
Last week, a man passed me at about 80 mph. He was reading a newspaper stretched over the steering wheel; he had his dome light on. I see drivers talking on the phone, drinking and eating, paying more attention to what the kids are doing in the back seat, even putting their clothes on. These are accidents waiting to happen.
Driving is not easy today. The temptation is great to cut corners to save a few minutes. But breaking into a line of traffic, or driving to the end of a lane that is about to close, will only make things worse. And what if you get hurt in a collision, or hurt someone else? You will only lose a few seconds if you merge when signs tell you to do so. I have been driving for more than 25 years and I never stop learning. It is up to each of us to do what is right behind the wheel of any vehicle.
Truckers are responsible for our actions as well. We must leave on time to arrive on time. We can't speed to make up time. All of us must share the roads safely. The most important mile you ever drive is the one in front of you!

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