Well, the time is near! My student and I have returned to the main terminal and are preparing for the final CDL tests. This includes a pre-trip exam, backing test, and a road test. We've been working on pre-trip inspections for the past several weeks and at this point, my student has driven through all different types of terrain, traffic, and in a variety of weather conditions. The last thing we need to perfect is his backing skills.
The backing test consists of many different maneuvers. The type of test varies from state to state, but for the state of Missouri, my student will need to perform the following types:
Straight Back: This is probably the only easy maneuver. All that's required is to drive straight forward and then straight back without hitting any cones. Although, when nerves run high, anything can happen! People do fail this part of the test fairly frequently!
Offset Backing: For this maneuver, my student will need to pull straight forward, then back into a lane on the left or right of him (as specified by the examiner). Sounds easy enough, right? Well, it's not so simple. There are boundaries he is unable to cross and for a brand new driver, it can be tough to stay within the specified boundaries.
Alley Dock: Ahh, yes. Here we have one of the most challenging of backing maneuvers. Basically, my student needs to pull straight forward, then back the truck into a spot to his left which is at a 90 degree angle to him while staying within the specified boundaries marked off by cones. This can be very tough, even for a seasoned driver!
Parallel Park: Another tough one! Most people can't parallel park a Honda Civic, but in this case, my student will need to parallel park a massive truck. The truck must fit perfectly into a measured "box" and there are certain borders the truck and trailer must stay within. Oh, did I mention he has to do this on the left and the right side?
We went out to the "training pad" which is basically a big parking lot with several areas that have cones set up in the exact configuration that will be used during the actual exam. The training pad is congested, and many times one training area is shared by two trucks, so it can get quite cramped.
I took a different approach than many other CDL instructors on the training pad. I gave my student some quick opening pointers for each maneuver, did a demonstration, and then said, "good luck!" In my opinion, this is hands down the absolute best way to learn how to back up a truck. I saw so many instructors telling their student things like, "Turn the wheel to the right! Now turn left! Now right!" How are students supposed to get a feel for the truck and how it reacts if they can't make their own decisions and mistakes? If you have an instructor that does this, find a way to kindly tell him or her that you'd like to just try it on your own, make some mistakes, and learn from them.
There seems to be this misconception among both students and instructors that mistakes are a bad thing. I couldn't disagree more! While practicing, you should always strive to perform your backing maneuvers perfectly. I'm not saying you should run over cones just for the sake of running them over. But if you do hit a cone, go out of a boundary, or simply botch a maneuver... who cares? Instead of getting angry, upset, or frustrated with yourself, just take a deep breath and relax. Try to think about what went wrong, where it went wrong, and how you think you can fix that mistake from ever happening again. Then, start over. Chances are, you'll end up overcompensating or making yet another mistake while trying to correct the first mistake. That's ok too! You're learning. Experiment and refine your skills. Take something away from each and every backing experience. After nearly 3 years of driving, I still to this every day try to learn something from each and every backing maneuver. If you're going to make mistakes, there's no better place than on a training pad where the only damage will be to little orange cones.
No matter what state you're testing in, chances are the course will be measured in a very specific way so that each time you perform a maneuver, the boundaries and cones will be in identical locations. Use this to your advantage! Let's face it, you aren't trying to become a master trucker yet. All you're trying to do is pass the CDL backing exam.
So when you do something perfectly, make note of subtle things. Was your truck lined up with any certain cone when you started turning the steering wheel a certain way? Did your mirror line up with any certain part of the truck or any specific part of the course?
Here's a trick I used with my student for the 90 degree alley maneuver. I had my student pull straight forward as far as was legally allowed. Immediately, I had him turn the steering wheel all the way to the right and begin backing up. As soon as the drivers side mirror matched up with the right landing pad on the trailer landing gear, he would stop the truck. Then, he'd turn the wheel all the way to the left and start backing up again. He'd continue back until his drivers side mirror matched up with the exact center of the landing gear on the trailer before turning the steering wheel back to the right and doing it all over again. After doing this 7 times, his trailer would be lined up exactly where it should be and he could then "eyeball it" into the spot. It worked perfectly each and every time.
Is this something he'll do in the real world? Heck no! But again, the only goal here is passing the CDL backing exam. That's it. So find some unconventional tricks if you have to. Use the fixed and measured course to your advantage.
So after 4 weeks of driving, practicing his backing skills, and performing pre-trips, the day is upon us. I can see the nervousness in my student. He doesn't feel like he's ready, but he is. Trucking is all about managing stress while out of your comfort zone. Test day is one of the most stressful experiences anybody will ever go through in their entire life. And guess what, it's stressful for the instructor, too!! All I want is for my student to pass on the very first try so he can get out there and start making some money. But I'm very confident. The only thing that would spell trouble for him is making a mistake while under pressure.
Stay tuned! Test day is tomorrow!
Until next time, drive safely!
by Brett Aquila
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