Traffic dance

| September 02, 2008

Safe merging requires alertness, patience and courtesy.

Let’s be upfront about this: Though merging can seem second nature to an experienced operator, it’s one of the most challenging maneuvers you face on the open road, and the difficulty factor jumps in congested areas.

“Merging is one of the biggest problem areas you have to be aware of all the time you’re driving,” says Shawn Cavanaugh, 49, an owner-operator leased to Camel Express. “You have to be aware from when you’re going 3 mph coming in and out of toll-booth stops to 65 mph traveling down the interstate.”

Merging without incident requires constant vigilance, patience and courtesy. Heavy traffic, frustrated drivers and changing road conditions make merging difficult, if not dangerous, veteran operators say. Though there’s no guarantee the four-wheeler next to you won’t do something stupid, keeping the following tips high in your mind the next time you change lanes might help you avoid the worst-case scenario.

Check your mirrors
“Biggest problem with merging and lane changing is you have to be extremely careful of people coming along on your right side,” says Randy Miller, 59, a Harris Trucking driver from Bristol, Tenn. “I don’t think people do it intentionally or because they are rude – it’s just that they’re in such a hurry. The road can be clear one second, and the next there is a car beside your trailer.”

Miller says mirrors are one of the most important pieces of equipment on your truck. He has three mirrors on the right side of his tractor and two on the left side, including one mounted on the door that focuses on a blind spot on the side of the tractor. “Check your mirrors every 10 seconds, 20 seconds,” Miller says.

Cavanaugh bought a new truck earlier this year and added optional mirrors that he can move both up and down and side to side. “They are extremely beneficial in helping me find cars in my blind spots, especially if a car is coming alongside of me in a toll-booth area,” says Cavanaugh, of Shamokin, Pa.

“There are always going to be blind spots, no matter what truck you drive,” says Gene Vick, 46, a driver for Wild West Express from Las Cruces, N.M. “The worst blind spots are when a car is right beside me at my drive tires. You really have to watch.

“I have two big mirrors and two spot mirrors, and I’m checking them all the time. Make sure your mirrors and windows are clean.”

Watch your speed
Controlling your speed is critical when merging in heavy traffic – as well as being an important tactic in increasing fuel mileage. Experienced drivers recommend driving the speed of traffic in your lane or a little slower. Miller says he runs four to five miles per hour under the speed limit, which he says makes little difference in when he arrives at his destinations.

“If you’re on the freeway, you need to slow down and let merging traffic get in front of you or move over to a left-hand lane if possible,” Vick says. “I try to observe the posted speed limit. It depends on where you’re driving. In California, the speed limit is a lot slower than the speed cars are driving, and the truck speed limit is less than for cars.”

Miller says, “If I’m in the outside lane and cars are entering, I try to lay off the accelerator and give them plenty of room. I never try to crowd or intimidate anybody. The worst mistake anyone can make is trying to intimidate another driver.”

Planning ahead and allowing extra time to reach your destination is a vital part of limiting your speed. Cavanaugh says he sees many truck operators drive too fast and tailgate because they are in a rush.

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