In fact, it took me almost a full second to process the fact that I was on the freeway, not the track. My race car was twenty feet behind me on an open-deck trailer, and I was about to have an interesting exercise in getting that trailer slowed down and out of the lane without losing control.
After two race weekends in a row, I wasn’t particularly shocked by the cloud of dust and debris that appeared without warning a few hundred feet in front of me. Nor was I surprised by the cars swerving left and right away from it like cockroaches exposed to a sudden flashlight.
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So what was going on ahead of me to cause all this chaos, if it wasn’t a car going off-track? The answer was in the air, flying towards my windshield: a five-foot long section of truck tire.
When I was a teenager, both of my parents were very explicit about the fact that I was not permitted to drive next to a tractor-trailer for any length of time if there was any alternative whatsoever to doing so. They never really explained why, but the first time a truck swerved into my lane the reasons became crystal clear. There are plenty of laws on the books to govern the interactions between trucks and cars, but on the open road there is only one law that always holds true. It’s called Newton’s First Law Of Motion, and it sides with the trucker every single time.
Driving a real truck isn’t like driving a car; it’s a full-time occupation.
Late last year, our sister publication Esquire ran a harrowing tale of a year spent as a long-haul trucker. It’s absolutely worth reading, for two reasons: it’s brilliantly written, and it will make you think long and hard about ever hanging out in a freeway lane next to a truck, particularly after dark. Driving a real truck isn’t like driving a car, an F-350, or a U-Haul box van; it’s a full-time occupation that often results in sleep deprivation and risky driving to make a delivery on time. I once had the chance to spend an afternoon in a bar next to a career driver who bragged that “I run hot (above the speed limit), heavy (above the legal weight) and hard (for eighteen hours or longer between rest stops).” It was a relief to me when he started complaining that the modern trucking firms wouldn’t let him do all three at once.
Happily, many of the professional drivers out there are safe, sober, and in command of the most modern, well-maintained equipment possible. But that doesn’t mean that you are totally safe. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration permits loaded trucks a 355-foot stopping distance from 60mph. That is a full three times longer than what a family sedan in good condition can manage. Think about that for a minute. You might be killed just because you stopped in front of a truck. It’s also worth considering those numbers the next time you cut a truck off in fast-moving heavy traffic. The driver is leaving that space in front of his grille for a reason, and it’s not because he wants to do you a favor.
Then there’s the question of tire explosions, like the one that set off the chaos described at the beginning of this article. We’re all familiar with the old trope of the exploding “retread” truck tire, but the truth is that all kinds of truck tires fail at about the same rate, and for the same reasons. That doesn’t change the fact that an exploding truck tire can be deadly, particularly if you are right next to the tire when it blows. Driving over a tire tread fragment in the middle of the road isn’t likely to do much more than damage your front bumper or scuff up your rocker panels, but if the tire is still in the air when you hit it, you could be looking at a fifty-pound object being shoved through your windshield to share your personal space.
It’s dangerous to just drive blithely alongside a truck on the freeway, and it’s downright stupid to be right in front of one.
When it comes to trucks, the safest place to be is either a reasonable distance behind them, where your car’s superior maneuverability and braking will allow you to react to whatever happens, or several hundred feet in front of them. It’s dangerous to just drive blithely alongside a truck on the freeway, and it’s downright stupid to be right in front of one. Yet I see that behavior all the time. You probably do as well. How often have you been on a mostly empty freeway and found yourself driving up on a tractor-trailer in the right lane and a car sitting directly next to it in the left lane, with plenty of open space ahead or behind? I see it every day during my commute, usually several times. Don’t be one of those people.
Obviously, everything I’ve said above goes double or triple for motorcyclists. Don’t ride next to truck tires. You’re asking to get killed. Don’t cut trucks off; you’re nothing but a speedbump to them. And riding close to the metal bars at the end of a trailer is a great way to be decapitated.
Even if you’re the kind of daredevil who likes to cheat death as often as possible, however, there are still good reasons to give tractor-trailers a wide berth on the road. Remember that the drivers are at work. Treat them the way you’d like to be treated at work. Give them courtesy. Be predictable. And leave plenty of space for them to do their jobs. It doesn’t cost you anything to behave that way, and it might save your life.
Born in Brooklyn but banished to Ohio, Jack Baruth has won races on four different kinds of bicycles and in seven different kinds of cars. Everything he writes should probably come with a trigger warning. His column, Avoidable Contact, runs twice a week.
Road & Track