Flirting with Big Rigs

Story by Stu Seaton// Photos by Glenn Roberts
July 1 2009

As you’re reading this article right now, I ask you to do something for a moment. Take a look around you. Everything in your home was brought to you in some manner by a truck and the professional drivers that pilot them. That means there’s a pile of trucks on the road, the same road that we as motorcyclists share.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say that there’s a huge difference between a tractor-trailer and a motorcycle. When it comes to mass, a bike is a mere speck compared to a transport truck. Bikes stop much faster, accelerate much faster, manoeuvre at lightning speed—relatively speaking, and offer a tiny footprint on the road in comparison to even the most exotic cage, let alone a full-fledged highway rig.

As motorcyclists we have a pretty good view of what’s around us and if we practice mother earth and apple pie safety procedures we have few, if any, blind spots. Yay for us, but can we say the same for the other folks on the roadbed that we share? We’ve all heard repetitious horror stories about blind Buicks and careless Caravans. The ‘I didn’t see him’ sound clip is heard over and over, like a broken record. You can bet that with each repeated sound clip, someone’s life has been seriously shaken, altered or taken. As a rider, I would like to hear less, if any, of these stories. As far as I’m concerned, they are all preventable.

I wanted to understand the world of tractor-trailers better, especially what motorcyclists look like to the driver of a big rig, what we do right and what we do wrong. I also wanted to find out from professional drivers what we could do to make our interactions with highway rigs safer, friendlier and more enjoyable because I can assure you; trucks are not going to disappear from our roads and highways anytime in the near or distant future.

Mojo was graciously invited by Dave MacDonald and Dave Roth to spend some time with the Markel Insurance Company of Canada and some ‘one-on-one’ time with Albert Zimbalatti, Manager of Special Risks, Safety & Training Services, for Markel. The original idea was to simply investigate blind spots on transport trucks, but the story went much deeper than just visibility. Albert is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to transport trucks, visibility, traffic flow, patterns, accident investigation and more importantly; how to promote and produce professional drivers that practice impeccable due diligence skills and best practices, right down to road etiquette. This man knows his stuff.

After Glenn and I had finished intros with everybody at the Markel Guelph location, we got down to business talking about trucks and shared a few tales of truck and motorcycle interactions that ranged from the laughable to downright sobering. Dave Roth, who is a fellow rider, introduced us to a Peterbuilt tractor that we were about to use for our photo session and a ‘No See Zone’ 53-foot trailer that is specifically marked out with traditional tractor-trailer blind spots. I say traditional, because the tractor we were about to use incorporates some of the latest technology in mirrors and from what I was able to learn, there’s unfortunately a huge difference between the norm and what we were looking at on this gleaming blue and gold tractor.

While Dave was positioning the tractor-trailer, I asked Albert a few questions that are common to all riders.

What are the most common mistakes that are made by motorcyclists on the road? Albert paused with this one and emphasized that the question would be better related to all vehicles and not specifically motorcycles. The biggest concern is speed ratios; that’s always a recipe for disaster. Traffic has a certain predictable flow to it, when that predictability is altered, bad things can happen. High speeds approaching lower speeds. When this happens, people will make erratic moves and it generally causes a chain reaction. Driver ‘A’ reacts one way, but driver ‘B’ may follow with a different action and so on, now ‘flow predictability’ takes a day off and just about anything can happen. In general, motorcycles have the ability to accelerate very quickly, and any driver who is exercising all best practices can find a bike beside or passing that literally appeared out of nowhere. Solution? Go with the flow, aggressive moves may equal someone reacting the wrong way. In short, that applies to all vehicles with the caveat that motorcycles offer a very small frontal ‘mass picture’ in comparison to other vehicles–cages and trucks alike.

Is there an industry accepted timing for professional drivers to check mirrors and to my surprise there is. Every five to ten seconds, check a mirror as you scan for hazards with the emphasis on never losing sight of your most immediate hazard, so scan back to the hazard until it no longer presents a problem. Going across the top of Toronto must keep pro-drivers very busy.

We then went on to how should motorcyclists best present themselves to a rig? After some motorcycle specific variants were discussed the consensus seemed to be speed ratio and the proper use of signal lights. A flashing light will draw attention, then the message is delivered to the driver, keeping your signal on until you come up on the tractor’s rear wheels (between the tractor and the trailer) will ensure that the driver has seen you and knows your intentions. Albert also noted that in Canada we don’t use our horns enough and there’s a big difference between a friendly toot-toot ’look, I’m right here!’ and an angry horn blast. Using both visual and audio markers are a good thing. That being said; never assume anything, always try to get contact with the driver’s eyes and if the mirrors are set correctly that should be pretty easy to do.

We’ve all heard the odd ‘thump-thump-thump’ noise as we approach a tractor-trailer. I asked if a driver could hear that noise in the cab? The answer was no. Ambient noise within the cab would most likely mask the sound we hear so well on the outside. There are a couple of reasons for that noise. One could be the alignment of the rim on older style wheels or, a tread is about to separate from a tire. Either way that noise spells danger for a motorcyclist. If you’re coming up on a ‘thumper’, always give the rig a large berth and be ready for anything. When a re-capped tire lets go, or a tire blows out, you don’t want to be anywhere near it. We’ve all seen remnants of tire treads known as ‘gators’ laying on the road, they are heavy, come off in lightning speed and can be a killer to a motorcyclist given the right circumstances.

Wet weather riding is something that we all end up in at some time and I asked Albert what wet weather does to mirror visibility. In short, it cuts it way down. Just the fact that there are water-droplets on glass will turn good vision into poor. So what’s the answer for the motorcyclist? Be seen! Do whatever you can do to be brighter and present the largest ‘mass’ possible. Consider auxiliary lighting and bright apparel colours. Simply be more visible to the driver. If you can separate yourself by a lane, then do so. If you don’t have a lane available, remember where the blind spots are and pass with the knowledge that you may not be seen and prepare to instantly use your ‘out’.

Is there a difference between left hand (driver) side passing and right hand (passenger) side passing? Oh yeah. The left hand side is the passing side; the right hand is the suicide. Mirrors simply do not work as good when a driver needs to view their reflections from across a cab, motorcycles—as small frontal mass objects, look positively tiny in a mirror, especially in comparison to the larger frontal mass of a cage. Also keep in mind that on a three-lane highway, the middle lane is the passing lane for trucks and the right lane is their driving lane. A professional tractor-trailer driver will always try to migrate to the right lane and leave the centre lane for passing only. Never pass a rig in the right lane! You may be sitting smack dab in his blind spot and eventually the driver will be heading in your direction.

So what is the best way to pass a tractor-trailer? First, let’s split the lane in three parts, ‘A’ being the left tire track, ‘B’ is the centre and ‘C’, the right tire track. In the context of pure visibility the ‘C’ lane position is the best as the driver will have you in view most of the way. That being said, being in the ‘C’ lane position also puts you closer to the rig and will fail to ‘block’ your lane, so it’s a saw-off. The ‘A’ position allows you some manoeuvring distance to a risk and blocks your lane, but it also cuts down on your reflected image. The trick is to realize where the most predictable blind spots are and do your very best to stay out of them or pass through them quickly and efficiently.

If you’re travelling in a group you’re best to stagger your formation passing. Remember that your image in a mirror when in staggered formation will be much the same as a cage, two lights, double the frontal mass, thus you go from a tiny dot to something more substantial. Keep in mind that the rider in the ‘C’ position will be closer to the rig and remember anything with more than two moving parts will eventually break, that includes tractor-trailers. When in a group never put your faith in simply presenting a larger frontal mass picture, always know your ‘out’ and be prepared to use it in an instant.

I’d like to thank the good folks at Markel, the two Dave’s and Albert for shining some reflected light on something riders face everyday. Forewarned is forearmed. Ride with predictability, be seen, present as big a frontal picture as you can and never, under any circumstance, let your guard down.


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