Sense in the city

Confusing signs make navigating an unfamiliar city more difficult. Plan your route ahead of time.

“It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure this,” says Robert Petrancosta, Con-way Freight’s safety and environmental compliance director. “You have heavier traffic. You have shoppers looking for parking spots. You’re going into and out of residential areas. So you have to be more aware and practice your best driving skills.”

Compared to rural interstates, cities feel confining, frantic and distracting: places where some say 70-foot vehicles don’t belong.

“Traffic is just too heavy in these cities for big trucks,” says 42-year driver Lyman Jenkins, now with 1 McConnell Transport of Woodstock, New Brunswick, Canada. “The trucks are getting bigger – 53-foot trailers, extended wheel bases and 102 inches wide. City streets just aren’t built for them.”

“In some big cities, like Chicago, the streets are too narrow,” echoes 17-year driver Wayman Collins, a resident of that metropolis. “They’re not designed for the big trucks we have today. Some of them have hardly enough room for a six-wheeler.”

Of all a truck driver’s routine tasks, city driving is the most challenging and demands the lion’s share of a driver’s energy. Some drivers won’t go into certain cities, testifying to the difficulty of piloting an 18-wheeler through urban environments.

“City driving is not a kid’s job,” Collins says. “That’s a man’s job.”

Mistakes are inevitable
In unfamiliar territory full of potential booby traps, error-free driving is virtually impossible, even if the driver does everything correctly.

“You’re going to get cut off,” Jenkins says. “People in the city don’t respect trucks. They hurry here and there. They don’t use signals, and they ignore yours. If you need to change lanes, it’s darn near impossible to get over.”

Or instead of pushing four-wheelers out of the way, you miss a turn or get stuck in a construction site and can’t safely do anything about it.

In city driving, just one small mistake – a missed or wrong turn – can put even an experienced driver in a difficult situation.

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“A lot of drivers go down the wrong streets,” Collins says. “I see plenty of trucks holding up traffic and trying to back up. Without police assistance, that’s virtually impossible.

“And in just about any big city east of the Mississippi, you’re going to run into low bridges and narrow streets.”

Keep cool
In city driving, the driver’s mistakes don’t matter as much as how he responds to them. That’s when the professionals and amateurs part ways.

“You have to look at it this way,” says 15-year driver Jimmy Jones of Jackson, Miss. “You’re the professional driver. You’re the one who has to keep cool.”

A cool head can be crucial to city driving, especially when problems arise.

“Years ago, I got stuck under a bridge,” Jenkins says. “She went in, but she wouldn’t come out. We couldn’t even back out.”

It wasn’t exactly his fault. The street was freshly resurfaced.

“They put two inches of asphalt under the bridge, but they didn’t change the sign,” he says. “It said the bridge was 13 feet, 7 inches high, and I had a 13-foot, 6-inch trailer, so I didn’t have much clearance to start with.”

Asphalt paving reduced the clearance to 13 feet, 5 inches, and Jenkins’ trailer got stuck.
He kept his cool and didn’t try to force his rig through. That would damage the trailer and possibly the bridge, for which his boss likely would have to pay.

Fortunately, Jenkins had a simple solution. “We had to lower the air pressure in the tires so we could back out,” he says.

Avoid cities if possible
Even careful trip planning won’t eliminate all possibilities for mishap. Still, the seasoned pros agree that preparing for a city makes it a lot easier and safer.

For starters, bypass big cities whenever possible.

“If you want to waste two or three hours, go into a big city in the daytime,” Jenkins says. “If you’re not delivering or picking up in the city, you don’t want to drive through there.”

Sometimes the bypass is nonexistent or too far out of route.

“If you want to drive around New York City, you have to go 60 miles out of your way,” Jenkins says.

But during peak traffic times or major traffic jams, it might be worth it. Get a traffic report over the CB. The traffic jam vs. extra miles decision is usually a judgment call, though some carriers don’t want their drivers or trucks in big cities.

Ask for directions
If city driving is the only option, prior planning makes all the difference. Know your route ahead of time. Don’t try decoding confusing street signs and hunting for addresses while driving through big-city traffic.

“The biggest mistake a driver can make when driving in a city is not having the right directions,” Jenkins says.

Wrong directions or not following the right ones can cause truckers big problems. Big cities can be unforgiving even of small mistakes, and smart drivers call customers for directions to avoid known obstacles: one-way streets, low overheads, illegal turns, weight limits and treacherous intersections and restricted entrances.

But be careful whose directions you trust.

“When I first broke into the business, they’d say watch out for the people at the receiver giving directions, because they drive cars,” Collins says.

The best directions come from other truckers, who anticipate tight corners, low-hanging branches, weight limits and other potential obstacles non-truckers might leave out.

Leave a way out
All drivers miss turns sometimes, but the key to success is leaving yourself a way to get out of a situation.

In rural areas and small towns, a missed turn means circumnavigating the next block or making a u-turn in a vacant parking lot. But those options often aren’t available in big-city traffic. Drivers can safely assume that turning around will be difficult, dangerous and time-consuming.

“In Los Angeles, like on Crenshaw Boulevard, you can make a left or right turn, and you’ll find the streets wide enough so you can go around the block,” Collins says. “But you can’t do that in Chicago, and you’ll get stuck if you try.”

Pay attention
Even if you’re following all the rules, the other drivers around you might not be. Remain alert to the other vehicles and people on the road, including pedestrians and parked cars.

“Watch the other drivers and see what they’re doing – on the phone, eating and drinking,” Jones says. “If they make stupid mistakes, are you going to be able to stop your truck?”

“Don’t fixate on one point or just the car ahead of you,” Petrancosta says. “You want to be aware of everything happening in a large area around your truck. Take into consideration all the factors of the environment and do what’s necessary to be safe.”

Jones recommends making eye contact with other drivers to ensure they see you. Watch blind spots, decrease speed and “increase your cushion,” Jones says.

“Don’t take chances, and don’t rush it,” he says.

Urban Driving Tips
Plan your trip before starting. Get good directions. Plan around problems like construction, sporting events and concerts. Use the restroom and turn off phones before pulling off.

When driving:

  • Cut other motorists slack.
  • Decrease speed – don’t rush – and be patient.
  • Signal your intentions.
  • Increase the cushion of space in front.
  • Be continuously aware of activity all around the truck.
  • Look ahead – notice possible trouble and ways to avoid it.
  • “Be right” – avoid left turns; use right lanes; approach docks from the right.
  • Watch for people in parked cars opening doors in front of you.
  • If backing is too risky, park off to the side, walk in and ask a yard dog for help.
  • If necessary, get help blocking traffic, preferably from the police.
  • Mistakes happen during big-city driving. Stay calm and find solutions.
  • Expect the unexpected.
  • Make sure other motorists or pedestrians see you.
  • Wait for or safely and politely create clearance to make turns.
  • Check overhead clearance.
  • Before left-hand turns, make sure there’s room to get the whole truck across.

Transportation Statistics
“The traffic in cities these days is just too much,” says trucker Lyman Jenkins. “We have too many people driving too many cars.”

Statistics bear him out. Every year the United States has more people, vehicles and driving. In 2005, more than 238 million – almost a quarter billion – passenger cars, light trucks and motorcycles and 8.5 million heavy trucks (26,000-plus pounds). From 1994-2004, total vehicle miles driven annually in the United States increased by 600 billion: from 2.6 to 3 trillion miles.

The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics found travel times increased in 82 of 85 cities studied from 1993 to 2003. Some increases were a few minutes, others more than an hour. In all cities, travel-time increases during peak traffic hours – 6-9 a.m. and 4-7 p.m. – averaged 37 percent, or about 22 minutes per hour: two hours of urban rush-hour driving in 1993 became two hours and 44 minutes by 2003.

Below are the 10 cities with the largest travel-time increases from 1993 to 2003.

Atlanta – 28%
Chicago – 23%
San Diego – 19%
Baltimore – 18%
Houston – 18%
Miami – 18%
Minneapolis – 18%
Dallas – 16%
Denver – 16%
Sacramento, Calif. – 16%

Source: U.S. Department of Transportation Transportation Statistics Annual Report, 2006, search at this site to download.

Urban Crime Awareness
“It’s dangerous,” says driver Lyman Jenkins of Prince Edward Island, Canada. “A lot of people don’t have work, and if they get a chance to rob a driver or take something off his truck, they will. They’ll get into his trailer while he’s sleeping, too.” Vandalism, such as graffiti or broken antennae, is also possible.

“Unless you’re in a protected area with security guards, cameras and lights, you’re going to get people knocking on your door – panhandlers, lot lizards,” Jenkins says. “A lot of my friends have been robbed.”

It’s best to sleep someplace else.

“Don’t deliver in the city after dark,” Jenkins says. “If there’s any place that’s unsafe, don’t stay there. Stay in rest areas or truckstops on the outskirts. Get up early and deliver before traffic picks up.”

Most carriers don’t want their drivers or trucks in dangerous areas overnight. Call dispatch or safety and get help finding safe haven.

“Most rest areas have the sign right out there: ‘armed security’,” Jenkins says. “Nobody will bother you there.”

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