Sharing the Road with Trucks

Colin and Prue Kerr — 4 March 2021
Driving with trucks on the roads can be nerve-wracking for travellers regardless of experience. Here are some tips to make it easier.

Many of us have experienced it, haven’t we? That nervous feeling when we see a huge truck looming behind in the rear-view mirror, or bearing down towards you on a thin, narrow road.

While it can be an unsettling and potentially dangerous situation, there are a few simple things that can make it safer. We spoke to several current and ex-truckies on what should and shouldn’t be done to ensure that sharing the roads with rigs of any size is an easy and comfortable experience.




TRUCKS ON THE ROAD

Throughout Australia, huge semi-trailers and road trains are being seen more and more. With high fuel prices and the need to move large loads fast, these giants with 2, 3 and 4 trailers (also known as ‘dogs’) connected to the prime mover, are quick and efficient, and have a big job to do.

Extensively used in the mining industry to transport ore, gas, equipment and fuel, and in rural areas for moving large quantities of stock and produce as well as various goods, these huge giants must be treated with caution and respect whenever they are encountered.

Some big rigs can measure over 50 metres in length, can vary in over-width loads from 2.5m wide or more, weigh well over 100 tonnes, and are capable of high speeds in flat open countryside. There are strict regulations governing speeds, travel permits and the necessity for escort vehicles accompanying unusually high and wide loads, but most road trains we seem to encounter are travelling at up to 90–100km/h on the open road. 

PASSING ON THE ROAD

Looking firstly at gravel roads, if the road train is travelling towards you, the only safe move is to get right over to the left-hand side of the road, slow down and, if necessary, stop. Driving blind in a huge storm of dust with gravel and larger stones flying everywhere does little for the driver's blood pressure and can be just plain dangerous. Turn your lights on (so you can be seen by any other traffic which might be around) and wait for the dust cloud to safely continue your travels. 

Another aspect of road trains that most of us have experienced is the huge force of air turbulence (wind buffeting), which can be particularly dangerous if you are towing a trailer or caravan. Over the years many travellers have come to grief after not being able to control the sway created by the force of air and suction created. 

In these situations, keep to the left (still on the bitumen) and slow down before the road train reaches you, then maintain your acceleration and keep a firm grip on your steering wheel as it goes past. When meeting a road train coming towards you on a narrow single-lane bitumen road, your best option is generally to pull right off the bitumen (watch the sharp drop-off edges which can damage tyres at speed) and allow the truck to have all wheels on the bitumen — you’ll be less likely to be sprayed with dust and gravel, possibly causing windscreen or other stone chip damage.

WHAT ABOUT OVERTAKING?

If you are being followed by a semi-trailer/road train that obviously wants to go faster than you do on the open road, simply maintain a constant speed, keep well to the left (without leaving the bitumen) and the truck driver will select a safe stretch of road to pass. Don’t be tempted to pull your left wheels off into the gravel at highway speeds as all this does is throw up dust and gravel making things even more difficult. Slowing down with the truck behind you is also not generally desirable as this causes the truck to lose the momentum needed to safely overtake. 

While the truck is actually passing, keep a firm grip on the steering wheel to counter any air turbulence and maintain your speed until he is alongside and only then, very gradually slow down and ease further over to the left (still on the bitumen) if you need to. 

If, however, the truck is finding it difficult to pass (windy roads, double lines, etc) be courteous, look ahead for a safe spot to pull over (giving plenty of notice with your indicators as should be usual) and allow it to safely get past. This action will take a lot of pressure off you and also help to make life a little easier for the truckie. Once safely past, appreciative truckies will often flick their indicators (right and left) as a small but visible ‘thank you’ for helping them safely continue on their way. 

If you are travelling in convoy with other caravanners or another RV, please leave enough space between each vehicle to allow other vehicles, including trucks, travelling faster than you to overtake one vehicle at a time, rather than forcing them to dangerously try to overtake two or three vehicles at a time.

When you are following one of these big rigs and they are doing 85–95km/h, ask yourself, do you really need to overtake? Are you in that much of a hurry? If you do decide to overtake, remember you’ll need a very long (up to 2km), clear stretch of wide sealed road to do so — do not try to overtake on narrow bitumen roads, because if you go off the seal at speed, it is a real recipe for disaster. 

Try to overtake on flat ground or even uphill as the force of gravity will help to keep both the truck and trailers and your caravan or camper steady. Trying to pass downhill can be more troublesome as, if you are towing a heavy caravan, it might push your vehicle and you won’t have as much control. Also the truck will often want to use the downhill section to gain more momentum for the next hill, requiring you to travel even faster to get past. 

When overtaking, use your indicators and put your lights on to ensure the truckie is aware of your presence. Keep a firm grip on the steering wheel, watch carefully for any slight tail-swing from the rear trailer and be aware that you might experience some slight wind buffeting as you progress. Be sure to have in mind a plan to safely abort your passing attempt if it can’t be done safely. 

Once well past, use your left blinker to indicate when you are coming back. In this manoeuvre don’t cut back too quickly unless you absolutely have to! When you have overtaken the truck remember also not to just sit in front of him or slow down unnecessarily. Keep moving or it defeats the purpose of overtaking in the first place and will annoy the hell out of the truckies. 

On gravel roads, passing a road train through a cloud of dust is just plain dangerous. If the driver is aware of your presence behind, they’ll often move over and let you pass (don’t forget to give them a wave). Otherwise pull over and take a five minute break to stretch your legs and let him get well ahead — you’ll enjoy your trip a lot better. With this and all other situations involving large vehicles, always err on the side of safety. 

Another thing to note, particularly in towns and cities, is don’t try to overtake them if they are turning a corner, as they need plenty of room (and have restricted vision) when making these tight manoeuvres. We have all seen the warning signs ‘Do Not Overtake Turning Vehicle’ and they are there for good reason. If you do try to squeeze past in these situations, there’s every possibility you’ll get squashed against the curb or sent bush, and it’ll be your fault. 

It’s the same on dual lane roundabouts, as they will often need more than one lane to negotiate these situations.

COMMUNICATING

If you have a UHF radio you can communicate with the driver — usually channel 40 — in any of these passing situations and determine when it is safe to overtake. Remember when talking to truckies to establish you are talking to the one in front of you, not another truck further up or down the road in totally different circumstances.

In other circumstances, if the truckie is trying to overtake you, let him know that you’re looking for a convenient spot to pull over and let him pass. On the back of your caravan or camper it is also a good idea to have a sign such as ‘UHF Channel 18’ to show truckies or other travellers that you can be contacted on that channel — if you do have a sign, make sure you actually keep your radio on so that you can receive the calls! 

Also avoid channel 40 for general chatter between you and other RV travellers — use channel 18 and leave channel 40 for the trucks. You could even leave your radio on dual watch (scan) so you can pick up any communication on channel 40 or elsewhere.

ESCORT VEHICLES

When encountering an escort vehicle coming towards you with a wide load following behind, slow right down, keep well over to the left and follow any hand signal instructions of the escort. Be prepared to get off the road and stop if necessary, and also be aware that there may be more than one wide load being escorted. In fact, escort vehicles will often call you on their radio on UHF channel 40 when they see you approaching to warn you of the wide load, sometimes even telling you the width of the load and whether you’ll need to get right off the road or just keep to the left. 

If there is a police vehicle as part of the escort, this is an extremely wide load and you must pull over, stop and remain there until the last escort vehicle has passed. 

If you are following behind an escort vehicle with a wide load ahead of him, stay behind, be patient and when it is safe to pass, the pilot vehicle will wave you around. UHF radio communication is also worthwhile in these situations. Just as a matter of interest, road train drivers (and escorts) often refer to caravans as ‘wobblies’, so if you hear someone calling ‘the wobbly’, chances are they could be referring to you!

ALLOW MORE TIME

RVers should be conscious of the fact road trains are not as nimble and manoeuvrable as other vehicles and so reaction time for braking and cornering, for instance, is longer than it is for your vehicle. Making allowances for these limitations both out on the open road as well as when these large vehicles come into towns and cities, will help keep everyone safe. In particular, if you find yourself in front of one try not to brake heavily at intersections or traffic lights — they need a lot of time and distance to stop and being hit from behind with one of their solid bull bars and weight is not a pleasant experience! 

On the other hand, don’t travel too close behind them either, as the driver may not be able to see you their mirrors — generally, if you can’t see his mirrors, he can’t see you! 

Overall, remember, trucks and road trains play an important role in Australia’s economic development of the country and are a vital force in spanning the vast outback distances. They are Big Rigs for a Big Country, and if other drivers show them courtesy on the road and are aware of the dangers when encountering them, they are most unlikely to come to any grief. Remember, these drivers are doing a job and not on holidays like most of us are when we encounter them! Be courteous and work together with them so they can safely get on with their job and we can safely get on with enjoying our holiday.

For further information check out the Truck Friendly website at truckfriendly.com.au.

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Feature Outback driving Trucks Road trains Sharing the road Tips and tricks

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Colin and Prue Kerr