Narrow Minded

Negotiating the skinny two-lanes is an entirely different experience than driving on interstates and principal roadways within the National Highway Network.

Statistics show that there are 12 times more accidents on secondary roads than on interstates. Since most town and city streets are two lanes, that’s understandable. Statistics also tell us that nearly 30 percent of accidents occur at intersections.

Monty Rhoades, an owner-operator leased to Hotshot Express, actually prefers driving on two-lanes. But he recognizes the dangers in doing so. For Rhoades, the principal danger comes from people, cars and animals that are traveling perpendicular to his path. “I stay alert for anything that might cross my path,” says Rhoades.

While a lot of deer are killed on interstates, the likelihood of a crash between your truck and an animal crossing your direction of travel is far greater on rural roads where visibility to the side is often obscured by trees and other objects. Visibility and the crowded environment in even the smallest towns make awareness of peripheral activity by animals, people or other vehicles even more important.

The kind of awareness the smart driver needs on the interstate is different than what’s needed on smaller roads.

The change from one type of road to another begins on the get-off. The driver who reminds himself that a different driving environment requires a different awareness – starting before he leaves the big slab – will be a safer driver. For example, being surprised by the steep angle of a curved exit ramp is a recipe for disaster. According to Lamar Simpson, Driver Training Coordinator for McKenzie Tank Lines, a few simple steps will help insure your ramp safety.

  • Use the entire deceleration ramp.
  • Slow down to the speed to be used on the ramp before you enter the turn to ensure stability.
  • Use the outside edge of the ramp because it provides the longest and least steep angle for using the ramp itself.
  • Avoid braking in the turn because it can destroy the stability of your vehicle and raise the possibility of rollover. Given that 300 truck drivers a year die in rollovers according to American Trucking Associations statistics, avoiding even the possibility of such a wreck is wise.
  • Watch the edges. Soft shoulders and precipitous pavement edges can wrench the steering wheel from a driver’s hands (and not just on the ramp, on any stretch of a two-lane).

Once through the ramp, a driver must remain aware that the two-lane problems he’ll face may constantly change. Two-lanes often have no concrete shoulders but sharp drops off pavement into soft soil.

Ernest Sellers, a senior driver with McKenzie Tank Lines, notes, “Lane-centering skills are important on two-lanes. Traffic is closer on the driver’s side and the edge of the pavement can ruin your day.”

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Sellers remembers the days when parts of I-10 and I-65 were still twinkles in President Eisenhower’s eye. Running the back roads of the Florida Panhandle and taking U.S. 31 through the shantytowns on the outskirts of Birmingham, Ala., gave him plenty of exposure to two-lanes. He also recalls the longer driving times. “Using U.S. 31 through Birmingham added an hour and a half to plenty of north-south runs. It was crowded with intersections and you had to pay attention.”

Today’s driver must still remember that the transition from highway to urban and rural two-lanes is a mental transition as well as a behavioral one. The big road’s long straight stretches can lull a driver into a false sense of security. Sparse traffic and wide open spaces do nothing to prepare a driver for the quick change in awareness and skills that must be put into operation when the right turn signal goes on and a driver hits the deceleration ramp.

R.J. Taylor started driving in 1957, four years after construction began on the first stretches of interstate. “Those were the days when a 220 was the hot ticket and the only speed you got was on grades like Whitewater going down into Indio,” recalls Taylor. Speed, of course, is a factor on all kinds of roads, but speed control is particularly important on two-lanes where shoulders are close and oncoming traffic is closer. Using a speed appropriate for the condition is a primary safety factor on skinny roads where accident statistics rise sharply. Taylor remembers “the drain bridges on 111 going into Yuma were very skinny. We would judge which truck approaching a bridge from opposite directions would get there first and use our lights to signal which truck should cross first. That way we didn’t lose our mirrors.”

Tight clearances of all types are a primary difference between the super slab and the two-lane.

Don Young, a retired driver, says “back then a long trailer was 32 feet. Now you’re pulling 53s, sometimes on the same kind of roads I used when I started in 1958.”

Get ready to work the gearbox hard on America’s backroads. Sometimes gear-jamming makes the ride smoother, other times it keeps you out of trouble.

Sharp turns in crowded towns with skinny, car-laden streets, or small bridges with short concrete sides not visible in the mirrors, can tear up tires or even hang up a truck. Telephone poles, branches overhanging the road and trees on corners need to be accounted for.

Young also remembers being sent into plants where access was limited by bridges that would not accommodate an empty 13-foot, 6-inch trailer. While loaded trailers could squeeze through, the roofs of empties would hit the bridge. Having to back out a road where no sign indicates a low bridge and then find another route is time consuming and sometimes dangerous.

It is also important to remember that if you have gone under a bridge loaded, unloaded at a plant and then taken the same route out, your trailer will be inches higher than it was before delivery. Trailer heights also differ depending on fifth wheel height and rubber. It is better to deploy the tape measure in your tool kit to measure trailer height and bridge height than to get stuck or hit the front of the trailer. Squeezing under bridges is not a good idea at any time. Some bridges may have beams in their interiors that are lower than those you have already successfully missed. In the dark interior these beams may be invisible but just low enough to catch your roof.

Tree branches and bridges are not the only things that can catch a roof. Rhoades says, “Trailers that are leaning on a crowned road can cause problems.”

A leaning trailer is far closer to tall or overhead objects at the roadside. Telephone poles and trees are easily hit by a leaning trailer. Rutted and uneven loading docks can also cause problems. Pulling in empty may be easy but the mirrors of the truck next to you can get closer when you are loaded and the weight has caused your wagon to lean into a rut. Rural and small town loading docks, like skinny two-lanes, require extra awareness of changing conditions.

Smart drivers will be ready for steeper hills and curvier curves, sometimes in combination. It is important to pay attention to signage for warnings about curves at the bottom of hills, hidden driveways and detours. Detours can be especially aggravating since signs indicating their presence often do not appear until it is too late for a big truck to turn around. These small road problems are another reminder that tapping into current local knowledge of detours and other conditions by calling ahead is a very good idea.

If it has been a long, long time since your busiest gear-jamming days required you to regularly find a low-range gear in a hurry, rushing back from eighth or ninth in record time, you might want to brush up. You need to be ready – and practiced – in the event that a particularly steep hill suddenly appears in your path. Being good with the gearbox at all times is an asset on any two-lane road.

Limited sight distances are very common on two-lanes and they can hide upcoming hills as well as animals, crossing roads and cars taking their half out of the middle. Hilltops and curves make appropriate speed a necessity.

Back when hula-hoops, coonskin hats and the young Elvis were popular, President Eisenhower gave the green light to the building of America’s Interstate Highway Network.

It Was Quite a Hike Before Ike

Trucking has been around much longer than the super slabs. But if you took to the road after Dwight Eisenhower became president (1953-61) remember that what you see when you leap off the interstate into the wilds of two-lane America is pretty much all that pre-Ike truckers had to ride on.

As a young Army lieutenant colonel in 1918, Ike had charge of a motorized convoy from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. The trip took 62 days. Nine vehicles never made it at all. Even so, the journey was a vast improvement over wagon trains.

After his heroic role leading the Allied invasion of Hitler’s Europe in WWII, Eisenhower came to the White House, and, spurred on by his cross-country convoy experience and the ideas of rubber tire pioneer Harvey Firestone, championed the building of a network of interstate highways.

Today there are 42,794 miles of interstate.