According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), accidents involving heavy trucks like tractor-trailers have been on the rise in Florida and across the nation. Not only have accidents increased, but associated fatalities have, too. Tractor-trailer accidents can occur for a variety of reasons, but one thing all truck crashes have in common is their propensity for catastrophic injuries and fatalities.
The size and weight of a tractor trailer lead to a more forceful impact, which typically doesn’t end well for those in passenger vehicles who have been involved in a truck accident. The vast majority of traffic collisions are preventable, including those involving tractor trailers. Although you cannot influence or change a truck driver’s behaviors or choices behind the wheel, you can choose to safely share the road with tractor-trailers and curb your driving behaviors.
This guide provides an overview of tips the FMSCA recommends for drivers in passenger vehicles who want to safely share Florida’s roads and avoid accidents with tractor-trailers.
Don’t Linger in a Tractor-Trailer’s No Zones
The FMCSA estimates approximately 33 percent of traffic crashes between tractor-trailers and passenger vehicles occur as a result of motorists lingering in a tractor-trailer’s No Zones. These areas, more commonly called blind spots, provide a truck driver with limited or no visibility of other vehicles as they are moving down the road. All cars and trucks have blind spots, but tractor-trailer blind spots are the largest on the road. You can find them:
- Directly in front of the tractor, or cab, extending forward about 20 feet
- Directly behind the trailer extending backward about 30 feet
- Immediately below the truck driver’s window extending back to about half the length of the trailer
- Diagonally outside the passenger window extending back the length of the trailer across two lanes of traffic
In addition to massive blind spots, tractor-trailers lack rear-view mirrors and rear windows to check for traffic in their blind spots. Many large trucks have an extra mirror two mounted on the front of their cab to offer more visibility. Yet, you should always assume that if you cannot see a truck driver in his side mirrors, he cannot see you. During congested traffic you won’t have much control over whether or not you are in a tractor-trailer’s blind spot, but whenever you have the opportunity, you should quickly and safely pass the truck and avoid their no zones.
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Pass Tractor-Trailers Safely
Passing a tractor-trailer safely requires passing quickly and avoiding blind spots, but you also need to be aware of other motorists, too. Let the truck driver and others know your intentions by using your turn signal before you safely pass a tractor-trailer. Most importantly, do not cut back in front of the truck until you see the entire tractor-trailer in your rearview mirror.
Remember that tractor-trailers have blind spots in front of their cab. If you return to your lane too soon after passing, you risk cutting off the truck in their blind spot and possibly causing an accident. Also, truck drivers are supposed to stay in the right lane on divided highways and interstates. If you approach a trucker driving in the left lane, you should avoid passing them on the right. The driver will not likely see you and if they move to the right, you risk a sideswipe collision, or worse, getting run off the road.
Many motorists like to pass tractor-trailers when they are traveling downhill because they have a good visual, but this can be dangerous. A tractor-trailer’s weight causes them to pick up extra speed when going downhill. If you choose to pass, you may need to drive faster than the posted speed limit, ultimately resulting in serious injury or death if a collision occurs.
It is okay to pass a tractor-trailer stalled on the side of the road. Federal law requires them to put markers out so you see them. Move to the left and safely pass to avoid hitting the driver, the truck, or oncoming traffic.
Avoid Cutting off Tractor-Trailers
The average tractor-trailer is between 70 and 80 feet long and when fully loaded, can weigh up to 80,000 pounds. The average passenger vehicle weighs between 3,500 and 5,500 pounds depending on whether it’s a small car or a large SUV. Cutting off other motorists is dangerous and can result in a severe collision, but cutting off a tractor-trailer could be suicide. Tractor-trailers need more space and time to react to things on the road, whether that means a car slowing down, turning, or stopping. When you cut off a tractor-trailer you will be riding in their front blind spot. Even if the driver does see you, he might not have the time and distance to avoid a crash. Avoid putting yourself in this scenario by checking your mirrors and allowing ample space before moving in front of a tractor-trailer as it’s traveling down the road.
Don’t Follow a Tractor-Trailer Too Closely
According to the FMSCA, motorists should leave a minimum four-second space between their car and the rear of a tractor-trailer. Not only does this provide distance, but also time to appropriately react if the tractor-trailer quickly slows, changes lanes, turns, or stops. If you are unsure about how to measure a four-second gap when following another vehicle, follow these steps:
- Find a fixed object ahead of the tractor-trailer you are following. Examples include a stoplight, a tree, a billboard, a restaurant, or any other large object.
- Wait for the trailer of the semi to pass your chosen object.
- Start counting and stop when you reach four.
- If you drove past your chosen object before you reached four, you are too close to the tractor-trailer. If you passed your chosen object at the same time you reached four, or after, you are following the tractor-trailer at a safe distance.
Be wary of potential tire blow outs or other mechanical issues that might cause a truck driver to lose control of his tractor-trailer. This means not driving right next to a semi if you can help it, so you can avoid a possible collision if a breakdown occurs.
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Avoid Using Your High Beams When Following a Tractor-Trailer
Night driving can be stressful and hard on your eyes, making it necessary to use your bright lights whenever you have the chance. This might mean using them on an interstate when there isn’t much traffic. Even if you are a lone car traveling on a divided highway or interstate overnight, you will see tractor-trailers moving the goods we need and want across the state and nation.
Many assume that the height of a tractor-trailer and its lack of rear-view mirrors means a truck driver won’t be bothered by bright lights when they follow a semi. This is false. Your bright lights can reflect off the tractor-trailer’s side mirrors and cause the truck driver two or more seconds of temporary blindness. Although two seconds isn’t long, it’s long enough for a driver to lose control of his truck, swerve off the road or into another lane and cause a fatal accident. If you are within a quarter mile from the rear of a tractor-trailer, you should avoid using your high beams.
Always Signal Your Intentions
All states, including Florida, require drivers to signal turns and lane changes. Even so, some drivers get complacent and/or lazy and simply don’t bother to flip their turn signal, especially when changing lanes on a multi-lane highway or interstate. This can lead to an accident with any vehicle, but it is especially dangerous for tractor-trailers who need more time and more distance to react to cars in front of them. If a tractor-trailer driver cannot anticipate your turn, you risk being involved in a rear-end collision. When a tractor-trailer hits your vehicle from behind, it will not be a minor fender bender. Backseat passengers are in immense danger; severe, possibly fatal, injuries are imminent. One of the easiest ways to share Florida’s roads safely with tractor-trailers is by flipping your turn signal on at least four or five seconds before changing lanes or making a turn.
Give Tractor-Trailers Room for a Wide Turn
Tractors and trailers are connected at a pivot point on the back of the tractor. When a semi turns, the trailer follows and turns on that pivot point. This leads to extremely wide turns in comparison to passenger vehicles. When a tractor-trailer makes a left turn, they usually have the space they need without worrying about hitting another vehicle. Yet, right-hand turns require the driver to swing wide to the left to safely make a turn without hitting the curb or whatever lies to their right.
When you come to an intersection with a tractor-trailer, allow plenty of space for the driver to turn safely. If you tailgate the driver or don’t allow room on the left side of the trailer, you risk an accident. Although these accidents are at low speeds, they can still result in quite a bit of property damage and the weight of the trailer can easily cause severe injuries to those riding on the passenger side of your vehicle.
Don’t Drive Under the Influence
Driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol impairs your driving. Not only is this dangerous to others in passenger vehicles, but it’s especially dangerous when sharing the road with tractor-trailers. Alcohol and drugs impair your spatial perception as well as your sense of time, making it difficult to react to traffic, signals, hazards, and more. You likely know the legal limit is 0.08 percent breath or blood alcohol, but it doesn’t take more than one or two for some people to reach that limit.
Depending on how much you have had to drink or the level of impairment you experience due to drugs, you might swerve in front of a tractor-trailer or cut one off. It’s highly likely the driver won’t be able to respond quickly enough to avoid a collision because of the truck’s size and weight. Prescription drugs can also impair your ability to drive, especially when taken with alcohol. Keep yourself safe from a truck accident when you are behind the wheel by taking your medications as directed. If you find one of your prescriptions causes you difficulty while driving, be sure to inform your physician so you can switch medications.
Those who hold commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs), including tractor-trailer drivers, have long been prohibited by federal law to use cell phones while driving. Truckers can push one button to initiate a call—otherwise, all other operations must be hands-free. Florida distracted driving laws for non-CDL holders have recently gotten stricter. As of 2019, law enforcement can pull you over and issue a ticket if they see you texting and driving.
Many drivers, especially experienced drivers, understand the dangers of cell phone use and recent crackdowns across the nation have led to reduced accidents caused by cell phone distractions. Yet, many other behaviors in your car are not illegal, but they are distracting, and they can lead to a dangerous accident with a tractor-trailer. Some examples include daydreaming, adjusting climate controls, programming a GPS, putting on makeup, fixing hair, eating and drinking, chatting with passengers, and reaching for something in the backseat or on the floor. Sharing the road safely with tractor-trailers means avoiding distractions. Failure to do so might have dangerous consequences.
Avoid Drowsy Driving
With busy lives and long days, it’s easy to get tired while driving. Some even go beyond tired and suffer downright fatigue. The FMCSA estimates that 18 hours without sleep impairs a person’s ability to drive the same as a 0.08 percent blood alcohol concentration. Drowsy driving can result in short spans of nodding off or falling asleep at the wheel, both of which can cause a severe traffic accident, especially if you strike a tractor-trailer. Truckers are notoriously fatigued because of their demanding schedules and long hours. Choosing to drive only after you’ve had adequate rest also keeps you alert to react to drowsy truckers who might cause an accident.
If you were injured by a negligent trucker, a truck accident lawyer might help answer your questions and devise a plan to help you recover compensation.