Driving in the dark requires special skills and preparation
You’ve been driving for an extended period of time on an uneventful stretch of road. It’s dark, traffic’s light. You walk into a truckstop and you totter as your body struggles to gain equilibrium.
You’re likely experiencing highway hypnosis, or white-line fever, a state of mind brought about by the monotony of highway driving. To deal with the problem, engineers designed the Indiana Toll Road with curves every couple of miles.
Highway hypnosis is just one of the conditions you may encounter while driving at night. You are more susceptible to fatigue as your body seeks sleep. Your vision is impaired from lack of light. Your equipment may be difficult for other drivers to see, especially in rainy or snowy weather.
You can take precautions to minimize these situations and keep yourself and your rig safe. Plan ahead to get yourself and your equipment ready for night driving, and employ effective scanning and defensive driving techniques to stay on top of highway conditions.
“We concentrate on three factors: vision, glare and fatigue,” says Kimberly Genovese, safety director at Mason-Dixon Intermodal. “We concentrate on driving in the shadows, depth perception and headlights straight on in your face.”
A former military pilot for 25 years and now vice president of safety at West Bros. Transportation, Ralph Clemons says he sees parallels between piloting and truck driving. He advocates scanning “outward inward — you start on the horizon and work your way in. That way you get the proper perspective.”
Clemons recommends scanning from 60 degrees to the left to 60 degrees to the right. “As your speed increases, your peripheral vision decreases,” he says. “You have to keep your head and eyes moving in the daytime, but even more so at night.”
Your eyes have it
Have your vision checked regularly. If your physical or your CDL requires corrective lenses, get them and have them handy when driving, says Doug Moat, director of safety at Universal Am-Can. He recommends getting an exam every six months.
Don’t stare at lights from oncoming traffic. Look away from the light or close an eye if you have night vision problems, Clemons recommends. If you focus on taillights long enough, they might appear to be moving when they actually aren’t.
Depth perception is more difficult to gauge at night. Genovese says it’s harder to see vehicles slowing down and stopping at night.
Bright beams are useful tools, but don’t abuse them. Be courteous and dim them for approaching traffic and when following a vehicle.
Throttle it down
Slower speed is essential at night. When you’re on unfamiliar highways, such as two-lane roads, it’s often difficult to see the white lines.
Moat advises establishing a safety zone of at least 7 seconds at 45 mph behind the vehicle in front of you. Increase that by 1 second per 10 mph above 45 mph, he says.
Clemons instructs a following distance of two car lengths for every 10 mph during daylight and three car lengths at night. This will help you from overdriving your headlights.
Know your surroundings
Be cognizant of where you will be driving in limited light. If you’re driving on a Friday or Saturday night, remember that drunk drivers are more plentiful. If you prefer to drive during the day to time a night delivery in an urban area, watch out for pedestrians, Moat says. With limited winter visibility, watch out for children in school zones or residential areas.
Clemons instructs a following distance of two car lengths for every 10 mph during daylight and three car lengths at night.
In rural areas or on highways passing through woods another distraction is wildlife crossing the roadway. If a collision is unavoidable, Genovese says head into the animal rather than swerving to avoid. “They can cause a lot of damage, but flipping over causes more,” she says.
Long hours on the road can wear on you, and your body’s circadian rhythm will seek rest, especially between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. and 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., the National Sleep Foundation says. “You have to be alert to it, and if you feel sleepy, we encourage drivers to pull the truck over safely and take a 10- to 15-minute power nap,” Clemons says.
Universal Am-Can mandates its drivers to stop every three hours or 150 miles to walk around their flat bed or van. That not only helps you find equipment defects but it helps you wake up and gets the blood circulating. “It changes your perspective and breaks up fatigue,” Moat says. “You can flag those stops in your logbook, so it doesn’t have to be a 15-minute stop.”
Truckstops and rest areas are the preferred places to stop for a brief break. Yet if you’re feeling drowsy and can’t wait for a designated stopping location, pull onto the shoulder, Genovese says. “Be extremely careful on the side of the road,” she says. “People, especially drunk drivers, can run into you, so put out your triangles or cones.”
You can also combat fatigue by listening to audiobooks, or rolling down the window for fresh air. Be aware of the new rule barring commercial drivers frome using handheld cellphones while driving. Instead, use a handsfree device to talk to a friend or family member.
Inspections, both pre-trip and en route, are crucial when night driving. Taking the time to inspect your tires, brakes and lights before you hit the road at night will help head off expensive and time-consuming breakdowns on the road.
Inspecting your truck on the road might catch a defect that emerges, such as a burned out light. Plus, if driving in snow, the accumulation can freeze and obscure lights and reflective tape. Use fuel stops to clean your windshield, headlights and mirrors. Make sure nothing is blocking your radiator.
Check your windshield and mirrors for chips or cracks. “It may not seem like a big deal, but if you head into a cold area or you hit a pothole, that chip may spider into something bigger,” says Doug Moat of Universal Am-Can. If it happens, it could lead to an out-of-service violation and affect your safety rating.
Carry replacement bulbs with you. Make sure you have windshield wiper fluid and rubbing alcohol to clean wiper blades.
Staying alert at night
When you know you’re going to drive at night, prepare yourself physically. Here are some tips to stay alert.
• Get enough sleep to feel refreshed. Fatigue can be a greater problem at night. If you feel drowsy, pull off the road and take a brief nap or walk around your rig to get the blood flowing.
• Cut back on smoking Nicotine and carbon monoxide from smoking can reduce night vision. When you move from darkness to a brightly lit area and back to darkness again, it can take as long as 30 minutes for your eyes to adapt and regain night vision, the National Safety Commission says.
• Eat lighter meals with fruits and vegetables and avoid high-fat foods that can leave you sluggish and sleepy. Try crunchy snack foods such as nuts, carrots, celery or apples to keep you going.
• Get your eyes checked at least once a year. Your eyesight is your most important tool as a trucker, says Doug Moat of Universal Am-Can.