Habitual offender

Bad truckstop etiquette is one of the 6 worst bad driving habits, including bright lights in the parking lot.

Behind every bad driving habit is an unprofessional attitude.

“I’m not a philosopher, but I think a lot of it is that the drivers start out scared of the trucks, and they’re a lot more careful then,” says Raymond Courtney, director of the Commercial Truck Driving Program at Middle Georgia Technical College in Byron. “But as they drive, they become more complacent and start thinking they can do anything with the truck, and they just don’t pay attention.

“An experienced or conscientious driver would not let that happen,” says Courtney, who’s been an instructor since 1998.

Changing the unprofessional attitude that’s the breeding ground for bad driving habits is the ideal solution, but it’s not easy.

“They think, ‘I got away with it this time, I got away with it last time, I can probably get away with it all the time,'” Courtney says. “It’s like smoking. They know it’s bad, but they do it anyway.”

Like smoking, bad driving habits take their toll, and nobody is immune. If you’re lucky, you’ll learn your lesson early on.

“I developed some bad habits shortly after I got out here,” Courtney says. “I was taught to pay attention to the little things when doing a drop-and-hook. But I saw lots of drivers just back in, hook up and give a tug, so I got into that bad habit,” he says.

His truck’s fifth wheel had a safety latch.

“I hit a bump and activated that safety latch, and it closed the jaws on the fifth wheel,” Courtney says. “When I backed into the trailer, it broke the fifth wheel.”

He was stuck two days in Augusta, Ga., awaiting repairs.

“I broke that habit real quick,” he says.

It’s the kind of story an experienced driver can now laugh about. But some bad habits demand a lot more when they seek their due. Semi drivers have fewer wrecks than four-wheel drivers, but fatal injuries and catastrophic property damage are more likely when big trucks wreck. About 5,000 people die each year in wrecks involving semi-trucks, although that number was lower and rose about 10 percent between 1992 and 2002. “I’m not going to go out there and kill an innocent family. I couldn’t live with myself,” says Pipho Transport company driver Cliff McKenzie of Phoenix.

Read on to find the six worst driving habits and how to avoid them.

The worst among truckers’ habits is driving too fast, and it’s a simple one to fix.

“Everybody’s in too much of a hurry these days,” says Transfreight company driver Craig Den Engelsen of London, Ontario, Canada. “Slow down.”

Excessive speed is the primary cause of rollovers, which account for more than half of all big truck accidents.

“That’s a big, bad habit right there,” Company driver Darrell Pattison of Boise, Idaho says. “Drivers fail to observe speed limits, even in turns and curves.”

Driving faster than the speed limit burns more fuel and carries a greater risk, all without cutting that much time off your trip. Where’s the benefit? Slow down.

If bad habits could marry each other, following too closely would be speeding’s spouse.

“One of my biggest pet peeves – not having enough space in front and getting in too much of a hurry,” Courtney says.

He acknowledges that tailgating is not always the trucker’s fault.

“Of course, lots of times it is the four-wheelers fault for coming back right on your front bumper after they pass,” Courtney says. Other times slow-moving vehicles block center and right lanes, effectively blocking traffic.

“They hang out there driving under the speed limit,” Courtney says.

Here’s the right attitude: it doesn’t matter what the four-wheelers do.

“Make sure you protect them,” Courtney says. “We teach our students to treat every car and truck out there like it has a family in it.”

“The truckers are the professionals, and people in cars and pickups are not educated about what big trucks can and cannot do,” Courtney says.

“Make sure you protect them,” Courtney says.

Driving too fast and following too close are not complex behaviors, and they have simple solutions.

“Slow yourself down, stay off people’s rear ends and have a nice day,” says Connor Trucking company driver Darrell Pattison of Boise, Idaho.

He says he got those instructions from a state trooper.

“This driver said he was tailgating this tanker,” Pattison says. “They were doing 70 in a 55-mile-an-hour zone. He said the trooper came up next to him with a bullhorn and pulled him over.”

Again, now it’s a funny ol’ story. But slamming into a tanker at that speed could not have ended nicely. Driving too fast and following too close are high-dollar bad habits, and they’ll get you a ticket even if there’s no wreck.

Lazy cornering
Another bad habit common to truckers is not cornering properly.

“There are a lot of accidents at intersections because drivers don’t do what they’re supposed to do,” Courtney says. “They don’t keep an eye on that trailer – what’s going on with it as they’re making the turn.”

He says one reason for this is that drivers don’t set up for the turn beforehand.

“If you know you’re going to turn, then when you’re 50 feet from the intersection, you need to be in the gear you’re going to take that turn in,” Courtney says. “What we teach is if you’re going to make a right turn, stay square in the lane until you’re 30 feet from the turn. Then swing out to the left of the lane; take all the space the DOT gives you.”

Encroaching into another lane is common and seems necessary to get the trailer tandems clear of the curb, but technically it’s a ticketable offense. If other vehicles are pulled up too far into the intersection, all a driver can do is wait patiently for the other motorist to move.

But the smart driver has prepared to turn. “You can concentrate on where you need to put that tractor and trailer,” Courtney says, “instead of trying to get set up when you’ve already reached the point where you have to start the turn.”

Driving while distracted
Phoning while driving comes under the general heading of another bad habit truckers have: driving while distracted, which one study claims causes 80 percent of all accidents.

Chief among the distractions is talking on the cell phone.

“I do believe talking on cell phones while driving is probably the worst bad habit out here,” Pattison says. “The thing that aggravates me the most is when you go to pass somebody, and suddenly they’re in your lane because they’re too busy gabbing on the phone. It’s a nationwide bad habit, as far as I’m concerned.”

Four-wheeled vehicle drivers do it, too, but Pattison is talking about truckers.

Is talking on a cell phone while driving unavoidable? Some say it is, but we did it for about 100 years before cell phones became a necessity, so maybe the best cure is to shut the phone off while driving.

Truckers using cell phones while driving bothers Den Engelsen, too, but he has a more permanent solution: “Throw them out the window.”

If that’s too hard, try other solutions.

“The best way to break the cell phone habit is to buy the hands-free set,” Pattison says. “I think they’re a lot safer when they have both hands free.”

Many drivers also write down directions while driving, or try to use a laptop.

“The problem is, you don’t always have a place to pull off,” Pattison says. He recommends buying a voice recorder to take down directions instead of writing.

“You see a lot of drivers on laptop computers,” Pattison says. “They pass you, and you see them using one hand to type and one hand to drive, with the laptop open on the passenger’s seat. How safe can that be?”

“I see a lot of drivers going down the road typing away with the Qualcomm on the steering wheel,” McKenzie says. “That can’t be safe. They got maps out there, and they got one leg up on the dashboard. That might be cool for some of these girls doing it while driving in their cars, but you can’t do that while driving a big truck.”

Speaking of girls: watching them while driving is both risky and common among truckers. “It’s like the sight of a woman drives them mad,” McKenzie says.

“This guy gets on the radio and says, ‘Check out this car. I was trying to get her attention.'”

McKenzie says the driver was staying even with a woman in a car and waving his phone number at her on a piece of paper. This is neither safe nor good for truckers’ image.

“Then they wonder why everybody talks bad about truckers,” he says. “It’s human nature to look at girls, but when you’re driving, you have to control it. When we’re out here on the highways, we’re like ball players. The eyes of America are on us.”

Bad truckstop etiquette
At a truckstop, the bad driving habits pile up: driving the wrong way through fuel islands, backing up too fast, awakening other drivers with engine brakes and headlights in truckstops, not getting proper rest.

“Instead of going to bed like they’re supposed to, they come in here and play on these video games all night,” McKenzie says. “You come back in the morning, and they’re still here. They haven’t been to bed at all, and now they’re going to drive all day?”

“A driver is responsible for himself,” McKenzie says.

No respect
All bad habits spring from unprofessional attitudes, and they can get pretty bad.

“I heard a driver saying the other day he ran somebody off the road,” Pattison says. “He was bragging about it.”

A common complaint among experienced drivers is that younger, inexperienced drivers shun advice nowadays.

“I was a young whippersnapper, and I did all that stuff and got the T-shirt,” says 28-year veteran Den Engelsen. “But I had respect for the older drivers, and I listened to them, and I learned.

“The young guys now don’t want to listen to the older drivers. They want to find out for themselves.”

But it’s not just young drivers disrespecting older drivers. A lack of respect is common across the trucking population, Pattison says.

“The one thing too many truckers don’t have is courtesy and respect,” he says. “It’s the same for people all over the world. They get what they give. So if you want courtesy, be preparing to give it. If it’s respect, don’t ask for it if you’re not willing to give it.”

“You don’t know who to trust on the road anymore,” McKenzie says. “It’s shameful.”

Improving bad habits doesn’t start with the trucking companies, law enforcement or the general public. They start with the one in the mirror.

If you must talk on the cell while driving, a hands-free headset is the way to go

Cell phones can be a big distraction in the truck.

“I usually have my phone off while driving,” says driver Darrell Pattison of Boise, Idaho.

But it bothers him to see so many drivers talking on their cell phones while driving.

“That’s my pet peeve,” he says.

Hands-free headsets are a good way to keep both hands on the wheel and still keep in touch while driving. They’re widely available in truckstops and at a variety of price points.

“You can get the Bluetooth for about $100,” Pattison says. “But they have those little cords with earpieces and speakers on them for about 12 bucks. If you can’t afford 12 bucks, well