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Teaching drivers the difference in big rigs and private vehicles

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Curtis Thomas has been driving big rigs almost 40 years. He’s been teaching others how to drive them more than half of that.

“The industry has grown tremendously,” he said. “I’ve been driving since 1979. I’ve been a trainer for the state of New Mexico since 1993. I’ve seen the repercussions of improper training. I’m quite fond of the program. I realized how bad a driver I was initially. I see news stories about truck accidents, and can generally figure out what caused them.”

He stressed that driving a big truck is not like driving private vehicles.

“Every 10 miles per hour over 50 means being another second behind the vehicle in front of us,” Thomas said. “You’ve got your standard three-second rule at 40 miles an hour. At 70 miles an hour, you’ve got to remain six seconds behind the vehicle in front of you to be able to stop safely. A hydraulic braking system (like cars have) is 500 times quicker than an air brake.

It’s not just braking that’s different, either.

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“There’s a gap that’s important for safety,” Thomas said. “If I stop my truck at a stop light where I can see that white line in front of me, I can get my speed built up. Then I can get through the intersection safely. Also, moving my way up to the intersection helps people see that I’m taking my turn so they can respond safely. If I stop right at the intersection like a car can, I have to start off in fourth gear to get through the intersection safely. That tears up my truck.”

Thomas said teaching has improved his driving skills and made him more cautious.

“I started seeing evidence of it in my personal driving,” he said. “When I started noticing people run up to a stop sign, smoking tires and hitting another car. When I’d read about a truck going through the median and hitting another truck, I’d think, ‘What would I have to have done wrong to cause that accident?’

“From inside a big truck, I can see what’s going on inside most cars. I’ve seen people with their Kindle open on the dashboard. The things I see scare me sometimes.”

He’s not without empathy. Being on the road for four decades has given him a first-hand understanding of how things can go wrong.

“Most accidents happen in a driver’s first year or after their 10th year,” Thomas said. “From the second year on, they start getting enough knowledge to be a good driver. After 10 years, a lot of drivers start getting lazy and dangerous.

“At 11 years and one month, I rolled a truck. It was a great day. I was in a good mood. I wasn’t paying attention to my speedometer. I wasn’t paying attention to the road because I’d driven it a bunch of times. I’d become complacent. As I drove over the railroad tracks, I realized I was going too fast. When I did the sharp left-right to get it back on the road again, my tanker hauling milk laid over. I ruined the load, lost the truck and it took a lot of money to fix the trailer. That’s what happens when you get lazy and complacent.”

Thomas said that most accidents happen because of poor attention. Stopping time is what they’re up against.

“Most safety issues with big trucks center around being able to stop on time,” Thomas said. “Technology has made a difference. The first truck I ever drove had vacuum brakes. It took the whole length of a football field to make it start slowing down. Then I got into my first air-brake truck, it had a single air-brake system. That truck would start slowing down in about a half a football field. Now we’ve got dual-air brake systems. Now when you step on the brakes, it starts slowing down in a quarter of a football field. At 70 miles per hour, a truck will start to slow down in about 40 feet. Full stop in good conditions would be about a football field and a half. Cellphone use is still the biggest problem.”

The thing that worries him most is interacting with private vehicle drivers. Many don’t realize the risks they’re taking.

“I cannot get people to understand the crunch factor of a big truck,” Thomas said. “Car drivers often don’t give me that extra two seconds to make a turn, start through an intersection, or brake.”

He also said that if you believe a driver is not very good, or might still be new at driving, give them more slack, not less. It’s all about safety. There are a lot of new drivers on the road.

“We cycle out 10,000 drivers a year nationwide,” he said, “so there’s a constant demand for new drivers.”

The trucking industry is changing rapidly. Thomas wants his students to understand the power they’re responsible for.