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We’ve all seen it: A car in the fast lane with a semi truck so close to its rear bumper that it looks like a Saint Bernard is getting ready to get jiggy with a Chihuahua. Or a car creeping along in the slow lane with a rear-view mirror full of truck grill. What possesses a trucker to tailgate a car like that? Well let’s step back a second and look at that. But first, let’s examine what tailgating actually is. Not just trucker tailgating… anybody tailgating.
For those of you in third-world countries who have yet to discover the wheel, let me explain this concept. Tailgating is when one vehicle is close to another vehicle’s rear bumper. But the question becomes, how close is too close? I think that really depends on the individual. Some drivers might not mind a truck following them at one truck length, while another thinks they can detect diesel fumes breathing down their neck at that distance. Someone else thinks that a 2 or 3 second following distance is okay. Maybe it depends on the type of vehicle you’re driving too? I know I’d probably be more nervous being tailgated by a trucker if I were crammed into a new Fiat than if I was man-handling the road in a 1-ton F-350 pickup.
And then there are the folks who think that all trucks should have a 6-7 second following distance. For the record, this is what most trucking companies and safety organizations recommend. Now I’m not trying to say that a 3-4 second following distance is safer than a 6-7 second distance, but have you ever actually tried to follow someone at 6-7 seconds? It’s a loooooong stinkin’ distance.
If you want to get an idea of your following distance, here’s how to do it.
- Pick out a vehicle that’s ahead of you in traffic.
- When they pass a landmark, e.g. an underpass, a billboard, railroad tracks, etc; start counting off the seconds.
- Stop counting when you reach that landmark.
- Look at your raised fingers and count them (oh c’mon – you know you were doing it). That’s how many seconds following distance you have.
Now I’d be willing to bet that the number you come up with will be far less than you think it’ll be. If so, then the next time pick a vehicle even farther ahead and try it again. For a real challenge, try not to use your fingers when counting this time. Yes, it’s possible. And hey, did you know you can read silently without moving your lips. It’s true. Okay. Did you find a car that was 6-7 seconds ahead of you? I told you. That’s a long friggin’ way from that other car’s rear bumper, isn’t it?
I’ve been arguing since way back in driving school that a 6-7 second distance isn’t even possible at times.
Seriously. I got into a discussion with the lady that taught defensive driving at my truck driving school. We had just moved back from Dallas and I remember The Evil Overlord and I laughing when the teacher said we should leave a 6-7 second following distance. I asked her if she’d ever driven in Dallas. I said, “As soon as you open up a spot between you and the car in front of you, someone jumps into it and you’re back where you started.” She responded by saying that a trucker should go 5 mph slower when in traffic, that way as soon as the passing car gets in front of you, they’ll open up a 6-7 second following distance faster. What she neglected to take into account is the fact that the passing car isn’t the only car on the road, so the gap behind them fills up too. And perhaps even more importantly, since when has going slower than the flow of traffic ever been a safe practice?
So what to do? Well, as every trucker has learned, driving school is one thing; real life is something altogether different. The fact is that there are times when a trucker needs to tailgate. Let’s take a look at that. So in no particular order, I present to you the four reasons that a trucker might be tailgating you.
Trucker Tailgating Reason #1: Drivers Going Under the Speed Limit
I know this might be a shock to some of you 4-wheeler drivers, but even the truckers who love their job don’t do it for giggles; they do it to get paid. And the vast majority of us over-the-roaders don’t even get paid unless we’re moving down the road. So when some safety-conscious do-gooder decides to go under the speed limit, well you’re affecting our paychecks.
Listen, I understand that you fantasize about dropping your boss into a pit full of pissed-off scorpions, and therefore, you’re not in any rush to get to work. I can also understand that you missed taking advantage of the Cash For Clunkers program by one stinkin’ day and your car may have trouble reaching the speed limit. If that’s the case, that piece-o-crap shouldn’t be on the road. In either case, you’re holding up progress.
My feeling on this is that if you’re going slower than the speed limit and you don’t have a dang good excuse for it, you deserve to be tailgated. I’ve got crap to do, appointments to be made, and an Evil Overlord to appease come payday. So when I get closer to your bumper than you’re comfortable with, you can fix that by getting the heck out of my way. Understood, Gordon Lightfoot?
Trucker Tailgating Reason #2: Wishy-Washy Drivers
For us truckers, the only thing more frustrating than a slow driver is a driver who can’t make up their dad-blamed mind. And as any trucker can attest to, this goes for truckers as well as 4-wheelers. Listen, we drive these heavy suckers for a living, so we understand that a truck can’t always maintain a steady speed. But in my ever-so-humble, but totally awesome opinion, this should only be happening in hilly terrain. A fully-loaded big rig can weigh up to 80,000 pounds (even more with the right permits), therefore, even the slightest change in the slope of the road can cause massive fluctuations in speeds.
But what’s your excuse when you’re on flat ground? I can tell you that about 90% of the time when I see a car or a truck varying their speed, it’s because they’re on the cell phone. Well, I guess I should say that’s 90% of the vehicles I actually manage to get around. I honestly don’t get to see the culprit for the vast majority of fickle-footed drivers. That’s because they eventually notice me riding their bumper and they wake up long enough to pull their head out of their ass…ssassins Creed cap and hit the gas pedal. While that is frustrating, at least they’re out of my way. And you know how much I like for people to be out of my way. (Sorry, but only my podcast listeners are going to get that little joke.)
As you can see, the first two reasons truckers tailgate are simply to bring the driver back to reality so they can hopefully start paying attention to their driving. The third reason, however, is a direct result of the first two.
Trucker Tailgating Reason #3: Preparing To Pass
If it weren’t for you folks out there with gaspedalaphobia, there’d be no need for a #3 on this list. But since you do exist (much to the chagrin of all society, including your mom), this gives us truckers another reason to tailgate. For you brainiacs out there who haven’t thought of this, a truck takes a lot longer to get up to speed than a car does. When a car wants to pass another vehicle, they just mash the gas pedal to the floor and they’re around a 70-foot truck in less time than it takes Sheldon to knock 30,000 times on Penny’s door while wearing his Flash Gordon costume. But when the roles are reversed, it’s a major ordeal for the trucker.
I remember way back in the summer of ’84 when my high school driver education instructor, appropriately-named Mr. Lane, taught me how to pass. Even in a car, he told me to get right up behind the slower driver, or in other terms, tailgate him. When the coast was clear, he said, Step on it!” Well, I put my foot down, but I wasn’t aware of that “passing gear” mode past what I thought was “all the way to the floor.” Thankfully, there was just enough time for me to figure it out while he yelled at me. Now let’s look at doing this in a truck.
We use reason #3 and we tailgate the speed-challenged car. Sorry, but if that didn’t happen, we’d never get around anyone. Next, we wait for an open spot big enough that even Superman couldn’t see an oncoming vehicle and then we mash on it… and we pretty much get nothing. It takes a long time to get these heavy suckers up to speed. Downshifting helps, but isn’t always effective when you’re going 60 mph. At least it isn’t in my run-of-the-mill 10-speed company truck. The best case scenario is that the slower driver doesn’t feel like dying, so they back out of it and lessen the time we’re required to be out in the other lane. Thankfully, this usually happens. But I’ll bet I’m not the only trucker who’s had to back out of it and duck back behind to escape a game of chicken because of some stubborn, trucker-hating jerk.
And of course, remember that it isn’t always a 15-foot long car we’re passing. Other times it’s another 70-foot long truck. There are certain carriers out there that you see from a distance and you know you’re gonna have to pass them eventually. Once again, we have to get right up on their bumper to set up the pass. I like to use their shiny trailer doors to check my teeth for spinach chunks while I’m waiting for an opening to pass. Once clear, you launch your attack and pray for a cooperative trucker. For more on the challenges of speed-limited trucks trying to pass each other, check out one of my favorite blog posts I’ve written called TD66: Truckers Go Turtle Racing.
I should also point out that tailgating to set up a pass is necessary whether you’re on a 4-lane freeway or a 2-lane country road. On the 2-lane, you need to close the gap for time’s sake. On the 4-lane, you want to avoid jumping out and slowing down traffic while you’re still three truck-lengths back. Because if you do that, you can almost guarantee some Fast-and-Furious wannabe will come screaming around you on the right and attempt to squeeze back in front of you. And by the way, if you’ve ever done this, please reach into your silverware drawer, grab a fork, and jab it in your forehead. Thanks.
Trucker Tailgating Reason #4: The Trucker is a Jerk
There is no getting around admitting this. Just like the few truckers who refuse to shower give us all a bad rap, there are also a few chronic tailgaters. These are the drivers who are tailgating a car, despite the fact that the car is going 75 mph in the fast lane. Yes, Mr. Studmuffin Trucker, it’s nice that you can bury your speedometer needle past your 100 mph gauge. Yes, we can see how fearless and skillful you are because you can ride 5 feet off some unfortunate dude’s bumper. I’m sooooo impressed.
So what I want to know is why these truckers do this? You see, when I use the word “tailgating,” I’m talking about following at two or three car lengths… for a brief period of time. The way I see it is no trucker has any reason to be close enough to a car that you can’t see the entire vehicle above your hood. Even that’s too close at highway speeds. And I’ve seen some of these miscreants stay that close until they’re out of my vision. Uncool, man. Uncool.
So why exactly are you pushing that car down the road? What’s your excuse? Your load is late? Is your load of pickles really so important that you’re willing to put people at risk? Is there some kind of pregnancy convention going on that will cause mass water-breakage if you don’t show up on time? Sorry, driver. I’m gonna need more convincing. What’s that? The guy flipped you the bird earlier? Well clearly you can quell his road rage by tailgating him and raising his stress level. Brilliant, Sherlock, just brilliant. Just try to remember this when you’re tailgating so close: if he taps his brakes and you hit him because you can’t see his taillights, you may just be in jail soon. And if that happens, I for one hope that it’s your turn to get tailgated.
So there you have it, four reasons for a trucker to be tailgating you. What do you think? Are these legitimate reasons to be tailgating (well #1-3 anyway)? Or do you think there’s ever a good excuse to tailgate? Don’t be stingy. Share your thoughts below.