Well, as I said yesterday, my confidence continues to build each and every time I hop into that driver's seat. The day started off a bit shaky as I missed a couple of gears and was in a new truck I haven't driven before. There are two main "road trucks" which are the red one and the white one. The white one is the one I first hopped into today. I drove this truck on my first day of driving, but that was without a trailer and I haven't driven it since then. It has more gears and the setup is a bit different. I also think the abuse on that transmission is starting to take its toll. The red one has very touchy breaks, but I think it shifts much easier. I also like the mirrors much better on the red one. It's more comfortable as a passenger too.
That said, after my first trip, I was driving like a pro! Ok, maybe not like a pro, but I was driving like a damn good student. My upshifts were quick and precise with no grinding, and my downshifts...well, those are a thing of beauty. I don't know what it is, but my downshifting is absolutely fantastic. Usually, when I downshift, it is so smooth you wouldn't even know I did it except you can hear the engine speed change and the truck begins to slow. What a great feeling. Even the instructors are impressed! In fact, they had me doing something a bit different today. Instead of shifting from, say, 8th gear to 7th, they had me shifting from 8th gear to 6th. It's about the same, but really helps to reduce the legwork.
Yesterday, the instructors were telling us when to make our turns in intersections. Today, we were on our own. It's really not all that hard! I've learned to just use all the space that is available to me and keep a close eye in my mirrors to see where my trailer is going and watch for cars who try to sneak in while making a turn. As soon as the turn is made, mash the accelerator and start shifting! It does still feel a bit awkward, but I'm really starting to get more comfortable driving these things. I never thought I'd say that so soon. Yes, the butterflies are still there. I don't think the nervousness will be gone for a while. But I don't feel as overwhelmed as I did at first.
One thing I've been really worried about is a quick decision at a stop light. I try to time the lights the best I can, but today the light turned yellow and I had to make a very quick decision on whether I wanted to stop or go through it. I decided to stop. My instructor remained incredibly calm and collected about it, but later said he was ready to jump out of the truck when that happened. HA! I actually did a good job with one exception. When I hit the brakes, I pushed the clutch in at the same time. This is another bad habit formed from driving my personal car. Leaving the truck in gear will actually help slow the thing down. As soon as the clutch is pushed in, the truck is now only using the brakes to stop and isn't using the engine to reduce speed at all. When a truck is 80,000 lbs, this isn't good. So, that experience sucked and is something I've been worried would happen. But I learned from it and nobody got hurt, so it's all worth it!
I know I probably sound like a broken record, but the improvements we are making each and every day are incredible. Not just me, but my entire class. Everybody is really starting to shift much better, we have much better control over the trucks, and I can relax a bit when riding as a passenger. There is still the occasional missed shift or grinded gear, but everybody is really starting to get the hang of this!
I want to state again to those of you who have never driven a manual transmission before, don't even worry about it. The ones making the most mistakes right now are mostly the guys who drive manual transmission cars. There are so many habits formed when driving a stick shift car that can't be done in a truck. When you learn from scratch on a truck, you have no bad habits to overcome. Do not let this scare you off! Is it hard? Yes. Is it scary? Absolutely. But like I said, each time we drive, the improvements are noticeable and substantial. You can do it!
Finally, I was able to spend some more time in "the yard" today driving on the obstacle course. This is probably the most fun I've had so far. It's much more relaxed than being out on the road. For one, I don't have an instructor sitting next to me. I'm in the truck on my own. The instructor observes from outside the truck and will come to the window if he needs to give instruction. Everything is done at low speeds. The course consists of straight backing, pulling forward and stopping at a specific point in a four or five foot area, making a right turn to see how close your trailer can come to a cone without hitting it, then lining up for a 45 degree back up between cones, in which you must stop at a certain point. It's sort of like a game to see who can score the least amount of points (points are bad in this game). The closer you are to a specific spot, the less points you get. The further you are away, the more points you get. And if you miss the specified spot all together (too close or too far), you automatically fail. You also fail if a certain number of points are obtained (lucky 13, actually). This is the exact "skills test" that we need to take when the Secretary of State comes out. So we'll be practicing quite a bit!
My backing skills are so-so right now. My first time backing it up straight, I did real well. I was slow, but I didn't kill any cones.My first 45 degree back was ok, but I still failed! Believe it or not, I was able to keep the trailer between the cones. But unfortunately, I was slanted to the point where I would have failed the DOT exam. I can back the trailer in pretty well, but seem to have problems "following the trailer" with the tractor. I think this will improve with time though. So far I know exactly which way to turn the wheel when I want the trailer to go a certain direction. This is a big battle won already. I see a lot of my classmates turning the wheel the wrong way and it totally screws up their positioning. Another issue I'm having is precision. When we back up on a 45 degree angle, we need to stop the trailer within about a four foot range (remember those points I was talking about?). My first try, I stopped way ahead of the area. The second time, I went too far. The third time, I actually did a pretty good job, but had a little help from the instructor. Hopefully tomorrow I can do it on my own. All in all I think I'm right where I should be at this point, and the rest of my class is doing a good job too. We definitely still need work, but we will get there.
Tomorrow, I'll be with a couple other students and we're going to take an extended trip. About an hour and a half drive each way for three hours total. We'll be visiting some truck scales, maneuvering around some parking lots, and who knows what else. Here come the butterflies again! But I think an extended trip will really help and I'm looking forward to it. I'm just scared to death of hitting something!
Our pre-trip inspections are really being hammered into us. We didn't do a very good job today on the pre-trip inspections. In fact, we were absolutely horrible. And our instructor wasn't shy about telling us how horrible we did. So, our assignment was to study a certain section and memorize it tonight, which I've already done. I think if we take it in sections, it'll make it much more manageable.
Yes, it's true, there's more to truck driving than holding onto a steering wheel!
I may not be able to write tomorrow as I will be tied up in the evening and will want to study some pre-trip material before I go to bed. But I'll be sure to get a post up as soon as I can to let you all know how my extended trip went. Thanks to everyone who has left comments and emailed me. Your support has been fantastic!
Until next time, drive safely!