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Managing Space & Seeing Hazards

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To be a safe driver, you need space all around your vehicle. When things go wrong, space gives you time to think and to take action.

To have space available when something goes wrong, you need to manage space. While this is true for all drivers, it is very important for large vehicles. They take up more space and they require more space for stopping and turning.

2.7.1 – Space Ahead

Of all the space around your vehicle, it is the area ahead of the vehicle–the space you’re driving into –that is most important.

The Need for Space Ahead. You need space ahead in case you must suddenly stop. According to accident reports, the vehicle that trucks and buses most often run into is the one in front of them. The most frequent cause is following too closely. Remember, if the vehicle ahead of you is smaller than yours, it can probably stop faster than you can. You may crash if you are following too closely.

How Much Space? How much space should you keep in front of you? One good rule says you need at least one second for each 10 feet of vehicle length at speeds below 40 mph. At greater speeds, you must add 1 second for safety. For example, if you are driving a 40-foot vehicle, you should leave 4 seconds between you and the vehicle ahead. In a 60-foot rig, you’ll need 6 seconds. Over 40 mph, you’d need 5 seconds for a 40-foot vehicle and 7 seconds for a 60-foot vehicle. See Figure 2.12.

To know how much space you have, wait until the vehicle ahead passes a shadow on the road, a pavement marking, or some other clear landmark. Then count off the seconds like this: “one thousand- and-one, one thousand-and-two” and so on, until you reach the same spot. Compare your count with the rule of one second for every ten feet of length.

If you are driving a 40-foot truck and only counted up to 2 seconds, you’re too close. Drop back a little and count again until you have 4 seconds of following distance (or 5 seconds, if you’re going over 40 mph). After a little practice, you will know how far back you should be. Remember to add 1 second for speeds above 40 mph. Also remember that when the road is slippery, you need much more space to stop.

2.7.2 – Space Behind

You can’t stop others from following you too closely. But there are things you can do to make it safer.

Stay to the Right. Heavy vehicles are often tailgated when they can’t keep up with the speed of traffic. This often happens when you’re going uphill. If a heavy load is slowing you down, stay in the right lane if you can. Going uphill, you should not pass another slow vehicle unless you can get around quickly and safely.

Dealing with Tailgaters Safely. In a large vehicle, it’s often hard to see whether a vehicle is close behind you. You may be tailgated:

  • When you are traveling slowly. Drivers trapped behind slow vehicles often follow closely.
  • In bad weather. Many car drivers follow large vehicles closely during bad weather, especially when it is hard to see the road ahead.

If you find yourself being tailgated, here are some things you can do to reduce the chances of a crash.

  • Avoid quick changes. If you have to slow down or turn, signal early, and reduce speed very gradually.
  • Increase your following distance. Opening up room in front of you will help you to avoid having to make sudden speed or direction changes. It also makes it easier for the tailgater to get around you.
  • Don’t speed up. It’s safer to be tailgated at a low speed than a high speed.
  • Avoid tricks. Don’t turn on your taillights or flash your brake lights. Follow the suggestions above.

2.7.3 – Space to the Sides

Commercial vehicles are often wide and take up most of a lane. Safe drivers will manage what little space they have. You can do this by keeping your vehicle centered in your lane, and avoid driving alongside others.

Staying Centered in a Lane. You need to keep your vehicle centered in the lane to keep safe clearance on either side. If your vehicle is wide, you have little room to spare.

Traveling Next to Others. There are two dangers in traveling alongside other vehicles:

  • Another driver may change lanes suddenly and turn into you.
  • You may be trapped when you need to change lanes.

Find an open spot where you aren’t near other traffic. When traffic is heavy, it may be hard to find an open spot. If you must travel near other vehicles, try to keep as much space as possible between you and them. Also, drop back or pull forward so that you are sure the other driver can see you.

Strong Winds. Strong winds make it difficult to stay in your lane. The problem is usually worse for lighter vehicles. This problem can be especially bad coming out of tunnels. Don’t drive alongside others if you can avoid it.

2.7.4 – Space Overhead

Hitting overhead objects is a danger. Make sure you always have overhead clearance.

  • Don’t assume that the heights posted at bridges and overpasses are correct. Re-paving or packed snow may have reduced the clearances since the heights were posted.
  • The weight of a cargo van changes its height. An empty van is higher than a loaded one. That you got under a bridge when you were loaded does not mean that you can do it when you are empty.
  • If you doubt you have safe space to pass under an object, go slowly. If you aren’t sure you can make it, take another route. Warnings are often posted on low bridges or underpasses, but sometimes they are not.
  • Some roads can cause a vehicle to tilt. There can be a problem clearing objects along the edge of the road, such as signs, trees, or bridge supports. Where this is a problem, drive a little closer to the center of the road.
  • Before you back into an area, get out and check for overhanging objects such as trees, branches, or electric wires. It’s easy to miss seeing them while you are backing. (Also check for other hazards at the same time.)

2.7.5 – Space Below

Many drivers forget about the space under their vehicles. That space can be very small when a vehicle is heavily loaded. This is often a problem on dirt roads and in unpaved yards. Don’t take a chance on getting hung up. Drainage channels across roads can cause the ends of some vehicles to drag. Cross such depressions carefully.

Railroad tracks can also cause problems, particularly when pulling trailers with a low underneath clearance. Don’t take a chance on getting hung up halfway across.

2.7.6 – Space for Turns

The space around a truck or bus is important in turns. Because of wide turning and offtracking, large vehicles can hit other vehicles or objects during turns.

Right Turns. Here are some rules to help prevent right-turn crashes:

  • Turn slowly to give yourself and others more time to avoid problems.
  • If you are driving a truck or bus that cannot make the right turn without swinging into another lane, turn wide as you complete the turn. Keep the rear of your vehicle close to the curb. This will stop other drivers from passing you on the right.
  • Don’t turn wide to the left as you start the turn. A following driver may think you are turning left and try to pass you on the right. You may crash into the other vehicle as you complete your turn.
  • If you must cross into the oncoming lane to make a turn, watch out for vehicles coming toward you. Give them room to go by or to stop. However, don’t back up for them, because you might hit someone behind you. See Figure 2.13.

Left Turns. On a left turn, make sure you have reached the center of the intersection before you start the left turn. If you turn too soon, the left side of your vehicle may hit another vehicle because of offtracking.

If there are two turning lanes, always take the right turn lane. Don’t start in the inside lane because you may have to swing right to make the turn. Drivers on your left can be more readily seen. See Figure 2.14.

2.7.7 – Space Needed to Cross or Enter Traffic

Be aware of the size and weight of your vehicle when you cross or enter traffic. Here are some important things to keep in mind.

Because of slow acceleration and the space large vehicles require, you may need a much larger gap to enter traffic than you would in a car.

Acceleration varies with the load. Allow more room if your vehicle is heavily loaded.

Before you start across a road, make sure you can get all the way across before traffic reaches you.

2.8 – Seeing Hazards

2.8.1 – Importance of Seeing Hazards

What Is a Hazard? A hazard is any road condition or other road user (driver, bicyclist, pedestrian) that is a possible danger. For example, a car in front of you is headed toward the freeway exit, but his brake lights come on and he begins braking hard. This could mean that the driver is uncertain about taking the off ramp. He might suddenly return to the highway. This car is a hazard. If the driver of the car cuts in front of you, it is no longer just a hazard; it is an emergency.

Seeing Hazards Lets You Be Prepared. You will have more time to act if you see hazards before they become emergencies. In the example above, you might make a lane change or slow down to prevent a crash if the car suddenly cuts in front of you. Seeing this hazard gives you time to check your mirrors and signal a lane change. Being prepared reduces the danger. A driver who did not see the hazard until the slow car pulled back on the highway in front of him would have to do something very suddenly. Sudden braking or a quick lane change is much more likely to lead to a crash.

Learning to See Hazards. There are often clues that will help you see hazards. The more you drive, the better you can learn to see hazards. This section will talk about hazards that you should be aware of.

2.8.2 – Hazardous Roads

Slow down and be very careful if you see any of the following road hazards.

Work Zones. When people are working on the road, it is a hazard. There may be narrower lanes, sharp turns, or uneven surfaces. Other drivers are often distracted and drive unsafely. Workers and construction vehicles may get in the way. Drive slowly and carefully near work zones. Use your four-way flashers or brake lights to warn drivers behind you.

Drop Off. Sometimes the pavement drops off sharply near the edge of the road. Driving too near the edge can tilt your vehicle toward the side of the road. This can cause the top of your vehicle to hit roadside objects (signs, tree limbs). Also, it can be hard to steer as you cross the drop off, going off the road, or coming back on.

Foreign Objects. Things that have fallen on the road can be hazards. They can be a danger to your tires and wheel rims. They can damage electrical and brake lines. They can be caught between dual tires and cause severe damage. Some obstacles that appear to be harmless can be very dangerous. For example, cardboard boxes may be empty, but they may also contain some solid or heavy material capable of causing damage. The same is true of paper and cloth sacks. It is important to remain alert for objects of all sorts, so you can see them early enough to avoid them without making sudden, unsafe moves.

Off Ramps/On Ramps. Freeway and turnpike exits can be particularly dangerous for commercial vehicles. Off ramps and on ramps often have speed limit signs posted. Remember, these speeds may be safe for automobiles, but may not be safe for larger vehicles or heavily loaded vehicles. Exits that go downhill and turn at the same time can be especially dangerous. The downgrade makes it difficult to reduce speed. Braking and turning at the same time can be a dangerous practice. Make sure you are going slowly enough before you get on the curved part of an off ramp or on ramp.

2.8.3 – Drivers Who Are Hazards

In order to protect yourself and others, you must know when other drivers may do something hazardous. Some clues to this type of hazard are discussed below.

Blocked Vision. People who can’t see others are a very dangerous hazard. Be alert for drivers whose vision is blocked. Vans, loaded station wagons, and cars with the rear window blocked are examples. Rental trucks should be watched carefully. Their drivers are often not used to the limited vision they have to the sides and rear of the truck. In winter, vehicles with frosted, ice-covered, or snow-covered windows are hazards.

Vehicles may be partly hidden by blind intersections or alleys. If you only can see the rear or front end of a vehicle but not the driver, then he or she can’t see you. Be alert because he/she may back out or enter into your lane. Always be prepared to stop.

Delivery Trucks Can Present a Hazard. Packages or vehicle doors often block the driver’s vision. Drivers of step vans, postal vehicles, and local delivery vehicles often are in a hurry and may suddenly step out of their vehicle or drive their vehicle into the traffic lane.

Parked Vehicles Can Be Hazards, especially when people start to get out of them. Or, they may suddenly start up and drive into your way. Watch for movement inside the vehicle or movement of the vehicle itself that shows people are inside. Watch for brake lights or backup lights, exhaust, and other clues that a driver is about to move.

Be careful of a stopped bus. Passengers may cross in front of or behind the bus, and they often can’t see you.

Pedestrians and Bicyclists Can Also Be Hazards. Walkers, joggers, and bicyclists may be on the road with their back to the traffic, so they can’t see you. Sometimes they wear portable stereos with headsets, so they can’t hear you either. This can be dangerous. On rainy days, pedestrians may not see you because of hats or umbrellas. They may be hurrying to get out of the rain and may not pay attention to the traffic.

Distractions. People who are distracted are hazards. Watch for where they are looking. If they are looking elsewhere, they can’t see you. But be alert even when they are looking at you. They may believe that they have the right of way.

Children. Children tend to act quickly without checking traffic. Children playing with one another may not look for traffic and are a serious hazard.

Talkers. Drivers or pedestrians talking to one another may not be paying close attention to the traffic.

Workers. People working on or near the roadway are a hazard clue. The work creates a distraction for other drivers and the workers themselves may not see you.

Ice Cream Trucks. Someone selling ice cream is a hazard clue. Children may be nearby and may not see you.

Disabled Vehicles. Drivers changing a tire or fixing an engine often do not pay attention to the danger that roadway traffic is to them. They are often careless. Jacked up wheels or raised hoods are hazard clues.

Accidents. Accidents are particularly hazardous. People involved in the accident may not look for traffic. Passing drivers tend to look at the accident. People often run across the road without looking. Vehicles may slow or stop suddenly.

Shoppers. People in and around shopping areas are often not watching traffic because they are looking for stores or looking into store windows.

Confused Drivers. Confused drivers often change direction suddenly or stop without warning. Confusion is common near freeway or turnpike interchanges and major intersections. Tourists unfamiliar with the area can be very hazardous. Clues to tourists include car-top luggage and out-of-state license plates. Unexpected actions (stopping in the middle of a block, changing lanes for no apparent reason, backup lights suddenly going on) are clues to confusion. Hesitation is another clue, including driving very slowly, using brakes often, or stopping in the middle of an intersection. You may also see drivers who are looking at street signs, maps, and house numbers. These drivers may not be paying attention to you.

Slow Drivers. Motorists who fail to maintain normal speed are hazards. Seeing slow moving vehicles early can prevent a crash. Some vehicles, by their nature, are slow and seeing them is a hazard clue (mopeds, farm machinery, construction machinery, tractors, etc.). Some of these will have the “slow moving vehicle” symbol to warn you. This is a red triangle with an orange center. Watch for it.

Drivers Signaling a Turn May Be a Hazard. Drivers signaling a turn may slow more than expected or stop. If they are making a tight turn into an alley or driveway, they may go very slowly. If pedestrians or other vehicles block them, they may have to stop on the roadway. Vehicles turning left may have to stop for oncoming vehicles.

Drivers in a Hurry. Drivers may feel your commercial vehicle is preventing them from getting where they want to go on time. Such drivers may pass you without a safe gap in the oncoming traffic, cutting too close in front of you. Drivers entering the road may pull in front of you in order to avoid being stuck behind you, causing you to brake. Be aware of this and watch for drivers who are in a hurry.

Impaired Drivers. Drivers who are sleepy, have had too much to drink, are on drugs, or who are ill are hazards. Some clues to these drivers are:

  • Weaving across the road or drifting from one side to another.
  • Leaving the road (dropping right wheels onto the shoulder, or bumping across a curb in a turn).
  • Stopping at the wrong time (stopping at a green light, or waiting for too long at a stop).
  • Open window in cold weather.
  • Speeding up or slowing down suddenly, driving too fast or too slow.

Be alert for drunk drivers and sleepy drivers late at night.

Driver Body Movement as a Clue. Drivers look in the direction they are going to turn. You may sometimes get a clue from a driver’s head and body movements that a driver may be going to make a turn, even though the turn signals aren’t on. Drivers making over-the-shoulder checks may be going to change lanes. These clues are most easily seen in motorcyclists and bicyclists. Watch other road users and try to tell whether they might do something hazardous.

Conflicts. You are in conflict when you have to change speed and/or direction to avoid hitting someone. Conflicts occur at intersections where vehicles meet, at merges (such as turnpike on ramps) and where there are needed lane changes (such as the end of a lane, forcing a move to another lane of traffic). Other situations include slow moving or stalled traffic in a traffic lane, and accident scenes. Watch for other drivers who are in conflict because they are a hazard to you. When they react to this conflict, they may do something that will put them in conflict with you.

2.8.4 – Always Have a Plan

You should always be looking for hazards. Continue to learn to see hazards on the road. However, don’t forget why you are looking for the hazards–they may turn into emergencies. You look for the hazards in order to have time to plan a way out of any emergency. When you see a hazard, think about the emergencies that could develop and figure out what you would do. Always be prepared to take action based on your plans. In this way, you will be a prepared, defensive driver who will improve your own safety as well as the safety of all road users.

Test Your Knowledge

  • How do you find out how many seconds of following distance space you have?
  • If you are driving a 30-foot vehicle at 55 mph, how many seconds of following distance should you allow?
  • You should decrease your following distance if somebody is following you too closely. True or False?
  • If you swing wide to the left before turning right, another driver may try to pass you on the right. True or False?
  • What is a hazard?
  • Why make emergency plans when you see a hazard?

These questions may be on the test. If you can’t answer them all, re-read subsections 2.7 and 2.8.