With holiday travel on horizon, highway safety advocates advise on sharing road safely with semis

Many Northeast Ohioans already have their holiday travel plans mapped out.

Whether they’re visiting relatives in a neighboring state or embarking on a full-blown, cross-country road trip, there’s little doubt holiday motorists will be sharing the roadway with all manner of big, commercial-transport trucks.

Although these trucks may be intimidating out on the highways and byways, there are a number of pointers public safety and transportation authorities offer for staying safe while traveling alongside the big rigs.

Lt. Charles Gullett, who is the commander of the Ohio Highway Patrol’s Chardon Post, said in an Oct. 27 phone interview that visibility is key when operating a vehicle around semis.

“Just keep in mind, if you can’t see the drivers in their (side) mirrors, the chances are they can’t see you,” he said.

He said OHP officials advocate the “No Zone” standard, as described by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

On one related web page, the FMCSA reminds the public that: “Large trucks and buses have huge blind spots — or No Zones — around the front, back and sides of the vehicle.”

The page also mentions the same thing Gullett said about not being able to see a truck driver in the rig’s mirror, along with advice including safe passing, not cutting off big trucks, allowing them extra turning room, maintaining your patience behind the wheel, always wearing a seat belt, staying focused, not driving fatigued and never driving under the influence.

Gullett provided some examples of these pointers in real-world driving situations. For instance, he said the limited mobility with which big-rig drivers must deal often comes into play at intersections, where road markings — namely the white “stop bars” painted on roadways near stop signs and other traffic signals — are placed where they are for good reason.

“I’d recommend stopping behind the stop bars,” he said, adding that just that morning in Geauga County, he saw a driver disregard a stop bar’s placement at the intersection of Routes 528 and 422. “If you’ll notice, it’s usually pushed back a little bit so those semis can make a left or a right there. And, especially, if you’re in the left-turn lane of an intersection, you’ll notice the stop bar is staggered a little bit (behind the one to the right) so big trucks and buses can make that turn.”

He also said it’s important to understand how long it takes these big trucks to stop or take evasive action, because of the heavy loads they’re often carrying.

“Keep in mind that semi trucks, especially if they’re carrying a lot of weight, take a lot longer to stop compared to a passenger car,” he said.

Some devastating, fatal crashes around Northeast Ohio, including a June wreck that claimed the lives of two Geauga County teenagers, may be partially attributed to the fact that big, commercial trucks hauling large loads often cannot stop in time to prevent tragedy.

Gullett said another potentially fatal move by passenger-vehicle drivers is cutting off big trucks as they change lanes.

“You definitely don’t want to cut them off as you make lane changes in front of them. They can’t stop in time or take the appropriate, evasive action if they have to” he said. “So, before you change lanes, make sure you can see their headlights. That gives them enough time to take evasive action, if needed.”

Following a big truck too closely is also a big no-no, he said.

“When we give out a rule of thumb — for following any vehicle — we say to maintain one car length for every 10 miles per hour they’re traveling,” Gullett said, adding that a standard sedan length is considered an appropriate car length to reference, as opposed to, say a Mini Cooper, a Smart Fortwo or a similarly small vehicle. “So, if you’re going 60 miles per hour, try to keep at least six car lengths between you and the vehicle in front of you.”

He also said that, where big trucks are concerned, following too closely presents an added danger because the trailers are so far off the roadway and vehicles that smash into the backs of them often wind up underneath the trailers.

Some other safety tips Gullett offered include passing big trucks as quickly as possible in the left lane.

“If you’re on the left side and you can’t see the driver in (the truck’s side) mirror, remember, he can’t see you,” the lieutenant said. “So you don’t want to stay in that zone. They could be the best commercial truck drivers in the world. But if they can’t see you, bad things can happen. So you want to get out of that area as quickly, and as safely, as possible.”

He also said the passenger side of a big truck is an even larger no-zone “which stretches from the front of the truck all the way to the rear.”

In terms of staying focused, alert and not driving impaired, Gullett said to plan ahead is the best insurance available.

“Definitely plan ahead,” he said. Especially with the holidays coming up, if you plan on drinking, have a designated driver because you definitely don’t want to drive impaired.”

He said planning ahead is also an important component for sober drivers who would otherwise be in a hurry and tend to exceed the posted speed limits and drive aggressively to arrive at their destinations in time.

“That way, you’re not rushed, not driving aggressively,” he said.

As with all holiday seasons, Ohio Highway Patrol troopers will be out in force this coming season — not only to ticket offenders and get impaired drivers off the roads — but also to make sure everyone out there is staying safe and to assist motorists who do run into trouble, Gullett said.

““We’ll have more units out on the road to make sure people get were they’re going safely,” he said. “If somebody breaks down, we’ll be there to provide assistance — especially how Interstate 90 is. People from Pennsylvania, New York are going back and forth and they may not be familiar with this area. So we want to be out there to make sure they’re safe. It’s all about safety — traffic safety.”

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