by Craig M. Lee

image courtesy Ontario Trucking Association

Don Mason is a “roadeo” champion, as in truck roadeos, those skills competitions for professional drivers.

In his 21-year career driving for Loblaws Companies East (formerly National Grocers), Don has seen a lot of good and bad driving from high in the cab of his big Mack truck.

As his roadeo record suggests, Don is a very good driver. How good? Last October, he placed first among 43 of the best truck drivers in North America at the Food Industry Skills Competition in Minneapolis. And that’s in the tough “tandem 48-foot” tractor-trailer class.

To get to Minneapolis, Don had to be the best of the best 52 drivers from all Loblaws distribution centres. Don has competed in the Ontario provincial championship in Belleville and, in 1995, was a finalist in the Canadian national championship in Quebec City.

At 48, married and the father of two teenage girls, Don is a quiet-spoken, responsible sort of guy, with a 17-year accident-free driving record. And an obvious choice for advice on how to stay out of trouble around trucks in traffic.

On that subject, the Ontario Trucking Association has been promoting a program called “Sharing the Road with Trucks.” Around since 1926, the association is a major voice for Ontario companies hauling freight all over North America. Its 1,700 members represent all aspects of Ontario trucking, from big companies to individual owner-operators.

The Sharing the Road program is delivered through the association’s Road Knights, a group of uniformed professional drivers who go to schools and clubs to talk about trucking and sharing the road. Says the association’s Stephen Anderson: “All road users are partners in safety. That’s the message.”

While Sharing the Road is the theme, the association program describes specific situations that get motorists into trouble when they mix it up with the big rigs. We took those situations, one by one, and put them to Don Mason for his personal insights.

But first, some numbers. Our highways get more congested every year. Compared to 10 years ago, there are 35 per cent more cars on the road, according to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And the number of trucks on our roads keeps increasing, right along with our demand for consumer goods.

Trucks are vital, delivering 95 per cent of the products we buy. Yet despite their numbers, less than three per cent of all collisions in Ontario involve trucks. And the trucker is at fault only 30 per cent of the time.

Which means, in 70 per cent of the collisions … well, that leaves you and me. Get the picture?

Truckers are trained professionals. Driving is their livelihood and they’re generally very good at it. So, what’s going wrong? Why the big pileups on the 401? Why can’t well-trained professional truck drivers avoid these collisions?

More relevant percentage-wise, what are motorists doing wrong when we tangle with big trucks, calamity being the result?

We asked Don to help make the Sharing the Road program more real. His boss at the giant Sheffield Road centre, Jim Galloway, Loblaws’ operations manager for transportation, was anxious to help. “Loblaws promotes safe driving and we support Don,” Jim told me.

Note: All of this information is also relevant when dealing with buses. And also important for bicyclists and motorcycle riders.

General Do’s and Don’ts

middle lane
image courtesy Ontario Trucking Association

The freeway’s middle lane is a truck’s passing lane, so don’t block a truck that may want to pass a slower vehicle.

“Some drivers cruise along in the middle lane, knowing they shouldn’t be in the left-hand lane, but really they should be in the far right lane,” says Don.

Truckers work hard getting their rigs up to speed, shifting through as many as 18 gears, so when you are in front of a truck, maintain your speed when it’s safe to do so. Don’t force trucks to slow down unnecessarily.

Also, a truck may roll back when starting on a hill, regardless of its driver’s skill, so leave room when you come to a stop behind a big truck.

Following Trucks

image courtesy Ontario Trucking Association

Driving a truck is a lot more complicated than driving a car or sport-utility. Their controls are complex.

Says Don, who lives in Carlsbad Springs, 10 kilometres southeast of Ottawa: “You’ve got to be looking at your instruments all the time, at the engine gauges, the air pressure, at everything.”

Sure, the view up ahead and out the side windows (left and right) is great, panoramic even. But that leaves a whole 180 degrees in back and along both sides where the truck driver has very limited ability to see, despite small convex spot mirrors. That’s because big trucks have a box or trailer that blocks the view. A car following a truck simply disappears from the trucker’s field of vision if it stays in the middle of the lane and gets too close.

As a result, the truck driver may not know you are there. Then, if you pop out to pass and the truck changes lanes, look out! You could get squeezed over.

Rule of thumb: Don’t tailgate. Especially big trucks. “If you can’t see my mirrors, I can’t see you,” reminds Don.

If you must follow closely when traffic slows or stops, move to the left or right a bit so the trucker can see your front fender and know you’re there.

Another problem if you follow too closely: You’ll miss highway signs that alert you to changes in the speed limit or to danger, or your destination. So, stay well back.

Passing Trucks

A typical car or SUV is about five metres (16 feet) long. A transport truck may be three times that long, about 15 metres (50 feet). Therefore, on two-lane roads, be sure you have extra time and distance to make the pass safely. Signal your intention to pass; don’t pull out suddenly.

image courtesy Ontario Trucking Association

And if you must pass, get it over with! As you pull along the side of the truck, you may again disappear from the truck driver’s view, so keep moving ahead, your speed consistent. Don’t linger out there. Remember that trucks throw a lot of slush and dust. When it rains, watch out for spray thrown out to the side by the truck’s big drive wheels. This can be especially heavy at the mid-point of the truck’s length.

When spray hits your windshield, you can be blinded temporarily, unable to see ahead, and startled. When that happens, your natural reaction may be to panic or lift off the gas. Exactly the wrong thing to do if it means reducing your acceleration and remaining in the splash, or risking extra time out there passing on a two-lane road. Generally, not wise.

Advises Don: “Watch the wind for which way the spray is blowing. Sometimes, if you wait a bit, the spray will blow more to the right, so you can pass easier.”

Cutting in Front

Once you complete the pass, don’t pull back in front of the truck abruptly. “People try to beat you to the off-ramp,” laments Don.

And don’t cut in front of a truck when merging on a freeway, either. Why? Because reining in one of these mammoth rigs takes twice the distance, compared to a car. Meaning, drivers have to leave twice the truck “space cushion” between themselves and other vehicles.

cutting in
image courtesy Ontario Trucking Association

It’s not only annoying to the truck driver to be cut off, it’s dangerous for everyone on the road.

“The trailer wheels lock up easily, more so when the trailer is nearly empty,” adds Don.

“When that happens, she’ll swing left, or swing right, but she almost never stays right behind you.”

Trucks Making Turns

When vehicles turn, their back wheels follow a smaller arc than their front ones. Thus, when a long truck makes a right turn, it must turn very wide if its rear wheels are to stay off the sidewalk. So, always watch for a truck’s turn signals. At an intersection, resist the temptation to pull along the right side of a long truck if that lane is empty. That truck may be positioned to make a right turn.

And remember those blind spots! You and your vehicle can disappear from the trucker’s field of vision. I’ve made that mistake driving a motorcycle and had a truck turn into me. Scary.

Recreational Vehicles

With vacations ahead, consider some other facts if you’re towing a trailer with your car or sport-utility. On the highway, big flat-front trucks and buses push out a lot of air, so your tow vehicle and trailer can be buffeted by the wind. Sometimes, even pushed sideways momentarily. Be ready.

Naturally, your acceleration rate is reduced in proportion to the weight you are pulling, so it will take more time and distance to pass a long truck. Having completed the pass, don’t forget the added length of your trailer before pulling back in front of the truck.

When a big truck passes you, your trailer will be affected before your tow vehicle and it may sway, alarmingly. The faster the speeds, the more pronounced the affect. Avoid the “big wiggle” by keeping all tires on your tow vehicle and trailer properly inflated. Ensure the correct tongue weight is on your hitch. And make sure your vehicles’ suspension and alignment are in good shape.

Backing Up

Big trucks don’t have back windows. At least not back windows you can see anything from. It follows, then, that there’s no interior rear-view mirror, which leaves only the two side mirrors to see to the rear. Again, remember that large blind spot directly behind the trailer.

If you’re walking by a truck that’s backing up, wait. Don’t cross behind. How’d you like strangers playing hide-and-seek with you when you’re trying to do your job with heavy equipment?


Driving safely around big trucks isn’t so hard if you keep a few things in mind. And remember, the next time you’re alongside a big truck in traffic, that its driver almost certainly has a lot more training and driving experience than you do.

So, show some respect, eh? Share the road. And you’ll arrive alive.

To arrange for a presentation by a Road Knight or to obtain a copy of a Sharing the Road video, contact the Ontario Trucking Association at (416) 249-7401 or, or visit its Web site at

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