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Published: Sunday, 2/26/2006

Courtesy, knowledge help keep road safe for everyone

SOMEWHERE ON I-95 NORTH IN GEORGIA - Henry the car, Digby the dog, and I are heading back to Ohio and Michigan, and we are scared to death. "Scared to pieces" is a gentler term. Death is so final, though it has crossed my mind enough to make sure "everything is in order at home." You know what I mean.

What are we afraid of? Not icy roads, not a heavy snowstorm, not running out of gas, having a flat tire, or even getting lost.

We - mostly me - are afraid of semi trucks. I dream of the giants rolling on the highway in great numbers, and many of those dreams end up as nightmares. Yes, for someone who loved to jump in her car and drive great distances, I admit that I have turned into a highway wimp.

To address my fear, I decided to try to learn more about highway safety. What can I do to better my chances on the way home? And what could the big-rig drivers do to make it easier for both of us?

The obvious source for such information is at a truck stop where the drivers eat, shower, and sleep. I arrived at the Flying J at the corner of Highway 95 and 206. The parking area was well represented by rigs and drivers. If you think the trucks are big when they pass your car, you should see them up close.

I exchanged truck tales with three drivers and thought we covered a lot of territory, to turn a phrase. Rich, the youngest, has been driving six years. He lives in Virginia and loves the business, wherever they send him.

Larry hauls produce and has been behind the wheel of big rigs for 35 years. The semi he parked is 70 feet long, as most of them are, he said.

The third person I talked trucking with was Tommy, who, with 47 years chalked up, is a real veteran. At first Tommy was unfriendly and told me to talk to someone else. "I just got off the road," he explained. But I had another cup of coffee and waited him out, and soon Tommy was ready to talk. He pulls double-wide yachts to Texas and Wisconsin from Miami.

"We used to be the king of the road and now we are dirt," Tommy said. "If I told you how I really feel they would hang me by my feet."

Tommy's gripes address both truck drivers and you and me. He criticized some of the younger drivers for being hot rodders on the road, and suggested that they may not have enough training for their jobs. He pointed out that the high speed is dangerous when a three-lane highway suddenly becomes two lanes and they push motorists over, adding that they think they own the road. Tommy hopes that some day truck traffic will be confined to its own specified lane or lanes.

He is just as critical of motorists who pull or drive motor homes. He cites it as a serious problem on Florida highways in winter, when snowbirds venture south with their vacation home and often pull a car and/or boat behind it. Tommy believes motor home drivers should have training to know how to handle the extra length, and because the engines are the same as that in a bus, they should be required to have a special license.

Larry believes a lot of the problems between cars and semis arise simply because there is more traffic on the main highways. He agrees with Tommy that driver's school is too short. In his 35 years he has had one accident with another truck. "And it was the guy I was running with. He cut the curve too short," Larry recalled.

Rich also emphasized that motorists should realize the truck driver is handicapped by blind spots. He said there are several on his rig and that he can't see directly in front of the semi. The young man suggested that drivers are like everyone else, with good days and bad days. The bad days are when the dispatcher cancels their trip.

Rich says honored driving rules still apply on the highway. Keep right, pass left is one to remember, he said. He also said there should be common courtesy to and from both sides. It's hard to believe that 70 is considered a low speed. If you drive 70 you should stay in the right lane, the truckers advised. Between bites of his salad Rich recited the truck drivers' formula to stay the required four seconds behind a car.

"One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi, four Mississippi."

Say it. It should take four seconds. If it only takes three, you are too close.

I admitted that more than once I have received a rude gesture from a truck driver. That means you are No. 1, Tommy said. Everybody at the counter laughed and I headed out onto I-95, of course in the right lane at 70 miles an hour. I am a fast learner. Scared, too.



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