Rarely does a teen driver climb into the driver’s seat of a Class 8 tractor, but Virginia Tech Transportation Institute’s Sharing the Road with Trucks program puts them there. The goal is to let them experience first-hand a trucker’s blind spots so they can drive more safely around big rigs.
Of course, the high school driver’s education students don’t fire up the engine and take a test spin, but they often are amazed at just what they cannot see — a bicycle in front, a car to the left, a car to the right, or a vehicle behind the trailer — from the driver’s seat.
Letting them experience those blind spots, called No Zones, is what VTTI hopes will stick with the young drivers. The Sharing the Road with Trucks outreach and education program started a few years ago based on the success of an earlier pilot program.
Why Share the Road Education is Important
“Our division director had conducted some research that found about 78% of crashes, near crashes, and close calls between a large truck and a light vehicle, were the fault of the person driving the light vehicle,” said Scott Tidwell, a senior field research technician that manages and coordinates Sharing the Road with Trucks.
“We decided, let's take a look at how we can improve things from the light vehicle side and reduce these crashes, or near crashes,” Tidwell explained.
VTTI evaluated driver’s education programs across all 50 states and found only about half of those states incorporate teaching young drivers about sharing the road with large trucks. However, in interviewing driver’s ed instructors, VTTI found that some do include instruction related to trucks even if it is not part of the state curriculum.
The driver’s ed teachers reported that teaching students about large trucks might involve anywhere from a paragraph to a page or two in a textbook, maybe a poster, or sometimes watching a video.
“There was a big lack of educational materials regarding sharing the road with trucks for new teen drivers out there,” Tidwell said.
He noted there are some organizations teaching truck awareness to young drivers, but VTTI decided to create a new program. The new program was pilot tested at a high school in West Virginia.
The concept, which evolved into the Sharing the Road with Trucks program, was pilot tested at a high school in West Virginia in 2013.
Two classes received the normal classroom driver’s safety instruction. Two other classes received that same instruction, but also were exposed to the VTTI program that incorporated some classroom presentations and then a hands-on experience of climbing up in a truck and learning about the blind spots.
Three months later, VTTI held focus groups and discovered the students exposed to the hands-on experience with a large truck retained more information.
“What we found was those that have that hands-on kinesthetic learning approach, when we brought our program there and brought a big rig, retained the most knowledge on how to safely share the road with trucks,” Tidwell explained.
The Sharing the Road with Trucks program began visiting schools in the spring of 2018, five years after the initial pilot program.
“It took some time to put everything together, get some grants to fund this program, and get it going,” explained Tidwell.
Strategies for Sharing the Road with Trucks
Although the hands-on experience was impactful, VTTI also found value in its classroom presentation that shared facts about large trucks and crash statistics involving large trucks and light vehicles. Matthew Camden, senior research associate at VTTI, said the in-class portion of the Sharing the Road with Trucks program is important because it helps frame the problem.
The classroom presentation provides five strategies to help keep drivers safe when they share the road with large trucks. Those are:
- Don’t hang out in the No Zone
- Don’t cut trucks off
- Maintain a safe following distance
- Properly passing a truck
- Don’t get squeezed
“Everyone's very quick to blame truck drivers for causing these types of events," Camden said. "But the research doesn't lie. It shows that most of the time, the people driving these cars significantly caused those events. Then we also talk about why when there's a crash involving a truck and a smaller car, no matter who causes it, the people in the car are going to come out on the losing end."
Typically, when Sharing the Road visits a high school, instruction is provided to the driver’s ed students. But sometimes smaller schools ask to have all the students exposed to the information, and the VTTI team does so. Most school visits are done in a single day, but sometimes two days are needed for larger-enrollment schools.
Experiencing a Truck Driver’s View of Blind Spots
Understanding a trucker’s blind spots really hits home for young drivers when they climb into the cab and settle in behind the wheel.
Once they are seated, they are quizzed. What do you see around you? What do you see in your mirrors?
The common reply, according to VTTI, is “nothing.”
Sure, truck drivers are aware of those blind spots. The goal of this experience is for the young drivers to learn about them early in their driving experience.
Typically, a bicycle is placed in front of the nose of the truck. At least one vehicle is placed to the left and another to the right, both in blind spots. VTTI said most of the time a state trooper also participates and parks his or her patrol vehicle directly behind the truck’s trailer with emergency lights activated.
Once the student steps from the cab and walks around, he or she is surprised by what all was around the truck in the No Zones.
“Every kid gets a chance to sit in the driver's seat of the truck, look in their mirrors, and realize that they can't see their classmates, they can't see that car that's in the left sideline spot, and they can't see the car back behind them or the bicycle up front. It’s really eye-opening,” Camden said.
Adapting the Sharing the Road Program During the Pandemic
Just as the program was gaining a foothold and starting to ramp up, COVID-19 disrupted what many think of as a normal school routine. In the spring of 2020, all school visits were cancelled, explained Tidwell.
So, the VTTI team had to adapt.
“We took our tractor-trailer, put vehicles in blind spots, and we rented video equipment and put together a video, which was from the truck driver's point of view and walking around views of blind spots around the truck,” said Tidwell.
During the disruption of the pandemic, the Sharing the Road presenters taught remotely, using whatever remote platform each school was using. The video was played for the students following the virtual instruction.
Tidwell said the number of schools reached has increased every year. In 2021-2022 the program visited 35 schools. The following year, 2022-2023, Sharing the Road went on-site at 74 schools. In addition, Sharing the Road was also present at seven community events.
“This year alone that was about 9,500 high school students that we reached,” Tidwell said.
Camden said next year, the group anticipates presenting at 100 schools.
Currently, the program is active in Delaware, Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland.
In about 30% of school visits, Sharing the Road partners with a local fleet to provide a truck and trailer. In Delaware, the Delaware Motor Transport Association partners to provide a truck on-site at the school. The program also partners with local truck companies to do the same.
Classic Peterbilt 379 to Join Sharing the Road
A 1994 Peterbilt 379, donated to VTTI by Paccar years ago, is being dusted off, refurbished with some flair, and soon will be the new star of the show for the Sharing the Road program.
“With the research that we deal with, with heavy vehicles and trucks, we're getting a lot more research," said Mark Golusky, lab and research manager. "So, our tractors were starting to be pulled away from us for research purposes. And ultimately, we just kind of had a crazy idea back in December of 2021."
When VTTI was at a conference and displaying its 2014 International Lonestar and trailer, they learned that people were coming up to see the “pretty truck.”
“And that just kind of got us thinking that, well, what if this was the old Pete fixed up, tricked out? Imagine the people that would come to see the truck. Get them to our booth, and then we can engage them while they are there,” Golusky said.
“We think this is going to be really good for all of the outreach activities, our research activities as well, just to get people to come talk to us," Camden added. "That way we can spread our safety message to anyone, instead of having to target them and find other ways to entice them to come up to our event and learn about blind spots and how to be safe."
Golusky said the Peterbilt was sent away to be completely repainted, frame, exterior, everything, and was returned in October. Then, VTTI gutted the inside of the cab and installed a new interior. The dash had some cracks and a new one could not be sourced, so applying a version of a powder coating similar to a bedliner was the solution.
“We’ve completely redone the inside in the school colors. So, the truck is burgundy. We've got a lot of orange accents inside and just updated everything as much as we possibly could,” he added.
Plus, the team installed ample exterior lighting. Golusky quipped that the truck now lights up like a Christmas tree “so you can see it from the space station.”
The rebirthed 1994 Pete was road-tested recently, and a few small mechanical things need to be done before its makeover debut. The small finishing touches will be completed in the coming weeks.