I'm about three weeks into being a CDL instructor now, working one on one on the road with my student. While my student still gives me a minor heart attack about once a day, he has improved dramatically in just a few short weeks. There is so much for me to teach him, and so much for him to learn in a relatively short amount of time that quite frankly, it makes both of our heads spin. From pre-trip inspections to shifting gears; proper cornering techniques to memorizing countless regulations; driving in construction zones to simply getting used to the truck driving lifestyle. It's a lot to handle for both of us. Many different aspects of life on the road I am able to teach him or guide him through. But some things can only be learned over time.
Until I started teaching, I never realized how much I've learned over the last few years. Some things have simply become instinctual for me. Knowing when to change lanes, how fast to drive, how to position the truck so that I have "escape routes" in an emergency situation, how to judge traffic lights and handle merge points. It has all become natural and instinctual. I simply know how to do those things properly, but it's nearly impossible to teach. These are all things that must be learned over time.
One area I've struggled with as an instructor is teaching my student how to engage in "Forecast Driving." Never heard of this term before? Well, that's because I just made it up. I really don't know how else to describe this driving technique, but I'm pretty sure all experienced drivers with a good safety record use this technique - and many without even realizing it. Safe truck drivers are always one step ahead of the surrounding traffic. We always plan for a wide range of potential situations simultaneously, and we know what we'll do if one of those situations occurs. Parts of this strategy I'm able to teach, while other parts are almost impossible.
Being able to time stop lights is essential to safe driving in a large, heavy vehicle. And in fact, everyone should do this regardless of what they drive. It is actually a very rare occasion that I have to come to a complete stop at a traffic light. Most times, I don't even have to touch the brakes. How do I manage this? Well, I forecast the traffic light. The only way to do that is to look way ahead. As soon as the light appears over the horizon, you should take note. Begin planning and actively forecasting.
If you see the light ahead is green, do you think it'll stay green? Chances are, by the time you get there, it'll be a "stale green light." In other words, it will probably change just as you're approaching it.
Look at the cross traffic. Are there cars stopped and waiting? Is the crosswalk sign flashing the "Do Not Cross" symbol? These are signs the light will change shortly. Start slowing down and plan accordingly. If you time it right, you will simply downshift and then slow down by simply coasting. The light will turn back to green before you need to apply the brakes. Saves time, saves fuel, saves maintenance, saves aggravation, and is simply a safer way to drive.
If the light is red, how long will it stay that way? Chances are, by the time you get there, it'll change back to green. But how soon will it change? Is the cross traffic light changing from green to yellow? If so, your light will be green soon, unless there are cars in the left turn lanes who will likely get the green arrow light first.
If the light does change to green before you arrive, how long will it stay that way? Some lights have a very long "cycle" while others are quite short. Always look for signs that will help you forecast the light and when in doubt, expect to stop. Don't worry about the little 2,000 pound cars behind you. Slow down and be ready. You might aggravate them, but they don't know what it's like to drive an 80,000 pound warehouse on wheels, nor do they understand forecast driving. Most people do not engage in "active driving" - rather, they prefer to drive passively. They don't try to predict what potential hazards lie ahead. They deal with hazards as they come to them. Never let intimidation get in the way of your safe forecasting. That's what makes a professional driver a professional.
Once again, in order to be a safe driver, you must plan ahead and try to forecast what will happen. Most expressways have an exit ramp about 1/4 mile before the entrance ramp. The exit ramp normally provides a great view of the intersection leading to the expressway. Is anybody making a turn onto the on-ramp? If so, what type of vehicle is it? Are there a line of cars, or is it just one? Once you've established that somebody will be coming down the on-ramp, start checking the left lane. Can you get over? Or is it safer to manage your speed and try to"find a hole" in the merging traffic? Are you going to slow down for the merging traffic or force them to match their speed to yours? Forecast it! See it before it happens. Don't wait until you see the merging traffic. You should already know what you'll do 1/4 mile before you even reach the merge point.
What the heck is "car language?" Well, it's another term I just made up! But safe truckers always try to read what the traffic is doing. If a vehicle is tailgating, they are probably in a hurry and are more likely to cut you off. Leave your ego at home and give them extra space. If you're able to forecast that they might cut you off, you can open your following distance ahead of time and even have an escape route planned. Don't be afraid to look inside vehicles either (a huge advantage to driving a truck). Are they on the phone? Text messaging? Eating a cheeseburger? In a conversation with a passenger? These are all things you should note. How will their in-car behavior effect the traffic situation? If they do something stupid, is there going to be a chain reaction of events? Forecast it!
Those are examples of forecast driving that I can put into words and attempt to teach. It's the unique situations that can't be taught. Everything from scanning for road debris to preparing for unsecured items that may fall off of a pickup truck (actually happened to me - I'll explain below). These one in a million situations can't all be explained to a student before they will experience it. After some time on the road you'll learn to forecast just about any situation.
Unlike the local TV weatherman, you can forecast the worst and be wrong 99% of the time without anyone getting mad at you. When it comes to minor situations like forecasting traffic lights or reading 'car language' you'll find your success rate can be amazingly accurate. It's the big events that your success in forecasting will be rather unreliable. But that doesn't matter.
Here's a personal example. I frequently see drivers, usually in pickup trucks or work trucks, with equipment that is very poorly secured. I always plan for their equipment to fall off the truck and scatter all over the road. This is something I see just about every single day on the road. In three years, I have probably forecasted this event to take place a thousand times. How many times has it happened? Just once.
I spotted a pickup truck with a bunch of wooden pallets stacked on the back. As he pulled in front of me, I made a forecast that a pallet would fly off the truck and land in the roadway. So, I opened my following distance quite a bit more than usual. A car pulled in between myself and that truck, so I opened the following distance yet again. Then, it happened. The truck hit a pothole, a cable holding the pallets down snapped, and 3 pallets flew off his truck. The vehicle in front of me slammed on his brakes, with a vehicle in the next lane over plowing right into one of the pallets as it tumbled along the roadway, knocking it into the next lane. What happened to me? I made a slow and smooth lane change since I had already positioned myself for an escape route, and continued on my way.
If I had hit any vehicles, it's likely I would have been charged with a preventable accident for improper following distance. If I had hit one of the pallets, it probably would have been marked as a non-preventable accident. But would it really have been non-preventable?
I've been wrong a thousand times about this very event taking place. But this time I was right. It saved me from a disaster, and I'm very grateful for that. It could have been a very ugly situation.
Every single day, I try to learn something new. A new forecast skill, a trick to backing into a dock door, a new method for scanning my mirrors... anything! Without a doubt, experience can do two things. It can build up your ego which can lead to complacency and a false sense of security, thereby increasing the risk of an accident. Or, it can build experience and knowledge to help prepare for unforeseen situations in the future. A true professional never stops learning and never assumes things will go smoothly out there. You always have to be prepared for the worst. And experience is something I just can't teach.
So even after that shiny new CDL license begins to fade; even after you complete weeks or possibly months of company training; even after you are given the keys to a truck worth over $100,000; even after you've been entrusted with transporting freight worth over $500,000; even after you obtain 1-million safe driving miles - never stop learning and always find ways to become safer, more professional driver. Take pride in your job and more importantly, take pride in your safety and professionalism.
As always, and until next time, drive safely!