Since I handle tractor trailer crash cases here in Utah, I thought it would be a good idea to get my commercial driver’s license, or CDL, so I could understand what a driver has to go through to get their license. So, cleared my schedule enough to make it happen, and I passed my CDL exam in four months ago in June 2016.
The time issue that I thought was the biggest hurdle, turned out to be not that big of an issue. I found out that there are many schools that allow you to get the instruction on your own time table. In my case, I did the driver training in the early morning and was back at the office by 11:30, no later than 12. And even with a lot of out-of-town things going on, it took less than six weeks to get the instruction – and have the confidence – to take the driving test and actually pass in the first time.
I was pretty excited when at the end of the grueling road test, the examiner told me I had passed. I almost felt like leaving the practice of law to start driving with one of the myriad of companies that are looking to hire CDL holders! I restrained myself, however, and returned to the office to actually continue working on cases involving tractor trailers, rather than just driving one.
So how were things different after having a license in hand that allowed me to jump into a tractor trailer and take that thing over the road? The following are a few insights I came up with.
Hands-On Experience with the Pre-Trip Inspections
There is something about being around the tractor trailer, going through all the moving parts that are there, on a daily basis, that you just cannot get from just reading instruction guides. At my school, there were two tractor trailer combinations, each with a 53-foot trailer hooked to them, that were used for training. And these were long tractors too, with sleeper bunks in them. (They sort of needed these as this is where the students would cram when they weren’t actually behind the wheel.) These combinations, as they are called, were quite intimidating at first. But the more time I spent around them, the more comfortable I became. This was good, because drivers are expected to become intimately familiar with all the major moving parts and safety systems on these rigs. For example, every time we started class, we were supposed to do what is called a “pre-trip inspection” and look at all those major parts to make sure they were intact and had no issues with them. Every day, a driver should at a minimum do a pre-trip inspection before they start and at the end of the day.
When I first arrived at trucking school and saw some of the more tenured students going through these different components and, out loud, identifying what they were looking at, what they were looking for, and pronouncing a clean bill of health on it, I was worried that I would have a hard time doing the same thing. But after watching for a few days and doing some inspections – and using a cheat sheet! — it became more comfortable to me. And at the end, I thought it was actually sort of fun.
Hands-On Experience with the Braking Systems
One thing I learned through all of this is how critical the braking systems are on these commercial vehicles. Since almost all of these heavy trucks have air brakes, the driver is expected to be quite familiar with how these systems operate and how to make sure that on any given day, the air brake system is going to be working properly and actually stop the vehicle. Our training, for example, had us inspecting the thickness of the brake pad material, gaps between the shoe and the drum, looking for abrasions, cuts, bumps or leaks in the air lines, visually inspecting the brake chambers and other components. The physical brake inspection involved testing, with gloves on hands, the slack adjusters to make sure the free play was no more than one-inch and checking the physical air-line connectors and connections that ran between the tractor and trailer to make sure there was a good seal.
And then there were the in-cab brake inspections that drivers are expected to do daily. These inspections involve individual testing of the tractor service brakes, the trailer “spring” brakes, and an actual moving 5 mph test to make sure the truck actually stops. We would also check to make sure the compressor was supplying enough air and check for leaks in the system using the in-cab air pressure gauges. Having gone through this, I walked away with the impression that short of an unanticipated catastrophic failure, drivers and their companies really should have a good read on the status of their truck’s brakes and see problems coming a long way off.
Behind-the-Wheel Training and Experience
Actually getting behind the wheel and driving this thing down the road was probably one of the more intimidating things I’ve done. I got to do this on my first day and was able to show my instructor and the other students who were in-cab how proficient I was at grinding gears! It turns out that these trucks, with ten or more gears, don’t have synchromesh like our modern-day passenger cards have. This means you have to pretty much match the speed of the engine with that of the transmission to avoid grinding gears. Some drivers “double clutch” to make this smoother and some drivers “float” the gears, not even using the clutch when they shift their already-moving vehicle. Since I struggled with the whole double clutching things, I would do my best to time the shift so as to minimize the grinding. I was consoled when I learned that even drivers that have been doing this for over a decade will still grind gears.
On the road, I was able to put into practice the safe driving rules I learned about in the written materials that drivers are required to follow and master – or at least pass with 80% proficiency. These rules include keeping a safe and generous following distance, making safe turns, braking early, going slow down steep grades, etc.
Understanding Where the Trucker Is Coming From
As a trucker, being a defensive driver and anticipating, identifying and safely responding to hazards is very much job one. I learned that you can never quite anticipate what a “four-wheeler” (trucker speak for a passenger car or truck) might do on the road. And on the road, we saw lots of examples of cars cutting us off, suddenly pulling out in front of us, etc. And after a while, even as a student, you come to expect bad driving by other motorists on the road. The foreseeability of these unsafe drivers is a big reason why truckers keep the long following distance they are required to keep, why they can’t drive down the road as if they’re in a passenger car, why they need to anticipate their next red light, why they need to make sure they wait for a large gap in traffic before pulling out, etc. It’s now easier for me to spot trucks on the road that are not following these rules, such as the rule about keeping a safe distance, driving at a safe speed, etc. These drivers stick out like sore thumbs to me as being unsafe, and as rule breakers, just crossing their fingers that the car in front of them doesn’t stop suddenly or move suddenly into their lane of travel.
Not Getting Snowed by the Driver or Safety Manager
Shortly after getting my CDL, I took the deposition of the driver in a tractor-trailer case I have. Having driven a tractor trailer and having the hands-on experience of doing the pre-trip inspections, gave me the context of the inspection and the ability to talk about it in depth with the driver. At one point in the deposition I just smiled when the driver said: “You wouldn’t understand this since you haven’t driven a semi-truck.” Without showing off the CDL in my wallet, I said “probably not” but maybe you can help me understand this … and this, topic areas I had gained an understanding of because of my training. I was also able to hold the line when the driver tried to get away with just giving a superficial overview of the inspections that he would do. Knowing about the exacting list of things that drivers are required to identify and inspect helped me establish that the driver’s inspection of the braking system was cursory, at best, and that he took a hand-off approach to inspecting the braking system.
Confidence to Go the Distance
Having an active CDL requires the driver to keep it current, where you basically need to have ongoing training at least every six months. Fortunately, the training school I enrolled in has a program that allows me to come back whenever I want – without cost — to fulfill the continuing training component. As long as I keep my license active, I expect to be up-to-date on the different facets of actually driving a commercial vehicle safely. Not only will this help me stay current on trucking safety, I see it as a unique advantage that I can offer my clients who are looking for a knowledgeable tractor trailer lawyer.
The author, Ron Kramer, is a tractor trailer and personal injury attorney who handles cases throughout the state of Utah.