Fred Case has been a truck driver for 25 years. In that time he figures he has covered more than 3 million miles. What's more, he's done it without ever having been in an accident or ever getting a ticket.
"I'm dedicated to safety," he says. "When I was 18, I learned to fly airplanes, and I learned what safety really meant. That same feeling transfers into driving. I think about safety each time I get in my truck. And I respect the law and I follow it."That record and those attitudes have earned Case a spot on America's Road Team, an 11-member body sponsored by the American Trucking Association that travels around the country to talk to consumers about sharing the road with commercial trucks. Case will spend 18 months as part of the team, taking five days each month to travel for the cause (which recently brought him to Salt Lake City.) And it is an important cause, says the California trucker.
The trucking industry is one of the nation's largest, employing more people (7.8 million) than live in most states (42 of the 50 states have a lower population, to be exact). Seventy percent of all U.S. cities and towns rely solely on trucks for their freight transportation needs. In 1992, truck drivers logged a total of 283 billion miles (more than 1.2 million trips to the moon).
Think of the clothes you are wearing, the food you ate today, the tools you've used, the consumer goods you need - chances are very good that most, if not all, were on a truck at some point. And that means a lot of trucks on the road.
"The trucking industry depends on the shared use of public facilities," says Case. "Cars and trucks must share the road safely and responsibly."
- "I am intimidated by big trucks," says one car driver. "They're very large, and sometimes I'm afraid they don't even know I'm there in the next lane."
- "I'm amazed," says a truck driver, "when a car pulls in front of me and then slows down. I need my safety cushion. I can't stop an 80,000-pound truck the way you can stop a 3,000-pound car."
Both drivers have legitimate concerns, and often the problem, says Case, is a lack of understanding about another vehicle's capabilities and limitations.
Whether you're sharing the road with a car, truck or other large vehicle, it is important for safety's sake to obey traffic laws, abide by the rules of the road and drive defensively. But there are some special rules that can help you get along better with trucks, he says.
1. Be aware of blind spots. Unlike passenger cars, trucks and buses have deep blind spots on both sides and directly behind them. When automobiles travel in these blind spots for any length of time, they cannot be seen by truck and bus drivers. Also, trucks and buses take longer to stop, so following too close can be a hazard.
2. Pass quickly and safely. When you are passing a truck, complete the pass as quickly as possible. "When I'm driving from L.A. to Tucson, sometimes it's very hot, and cars like to linger in my shade," says Case. "But that can be very dangerous. You could be in the blind spot, and if the truck needed to swerve or change lanes for any reason, you could be in trouble."
3. Don't cut in front of a truck. "This is my pet peeve," says Case. And it's a frequent cause of accidents. Car drivers see their freeway exit coming up and cut across the lane in front of a truck, causing the truck driver to apply his brakes. But trucks don't stop all that quickly.
4. Watch for turns. Pay close attention to truck turn signals. When the truck swings left before turning right, trust that the driver knows what he is doing instead of thinking he turned on his signal by accident and try to pass on the right.
5. Make yourself as visible as possible. Use headlights and horn when necessary. If you turn on your windshield wipers because you can't see, turn on your lights, too, advises Case. If you are having a hard time seeing, other vehicles will have a hard time seeing you.
6. Be aware of wind turbulence. Trucks displace a lot of air to the sides. If you meet a truck on a two-lane road, just be aware of that, advises Case. "It's not dangerous, but it's a good idea to be sure you have both hands on the wheel." The turbulence pushes vehicles apart; it won't suck them together.
7. Make room at stoplights. If you come to a stop behind a truck, realize that it will drift back slightly as it gets going again. Allow plenty of space.
8. Use low-beam lights. Always use your low beams when following a truck or other vehicle. Bright light reflecting off the side and rearview mirrors can blind the driver.
There are other things car drivers can learn from truck drivers, says Case. For example, a trucker is required to do a pre-trip inspection of his vehicle. "All drivers should take five minutes to inspect fuel levels, tires, lights and flashers. You'd be amazed how many cars I see at night where the tail lights don't work."
Truckers, too, can be a good source of information. If you need directions, ask a truck driver for help by using channel 19 on your CB, or ask a truck driver at a rest stop.
And if your car breaks down, pull off the road as far as possible. Hang a white cloth in your window as a signal of distress and stay in the car with your doors locked. Most truck drivers will radio ahead via their CB units for help. They usually won't stop unless there has been an accident, because they run on tight schedules and are also concerned about security.
In the old days, says Case, truckers used to be known as "knights of the highway." And a lot of drivers still deserve that title. But he admits the image has been tarnished through the actions of a few irresponsible drivers.
The industry has pushed for tougher regulations, he says. For one thing, there is the new national commercial driver's license. In the past, drivers could have several licenses from different states, and if they got stopped could pull out one or the other. Now there is only one license, and all records are combined in a national computer.
The industry has also supported random drug testing. "The public perception that truck drivers use drugs to stay awake is incorrect," says Case. "In 143,000 random tests, less than 2 percent tested positive."
And the industry supports such things as a ban on radar detectors, banning beer sales at truck stops and other safety measures.
"If there are drivers who are breaking the law and driving irresponsible, we don't want them in our industry," says Case.
If you see a truck driver behaving in an unsafe manner, get the company name, truck number if possible, and note the time, date and location. If there is no name, get the license plate number and state. Then write to the Safety Department at American Trucking Associations, 2200 Mill Road, Alexandria, VA 22314. The information will be forwarded to the trucker's company.