Driving is driving, right? Wrong. Though they share the road, the differences between driving a car or light truck and driving a semi-truck are vast, and just because you’ve mastered driving as a civilian, that doesn’t mean you can get behind the wheel of a semi and take over without missing a beat. Changes in handling, elevation, and vision make driving a semi-truck versus driving a car the automotive equivalent of night and day.
One thing that should dissuade an everyday driver from thinking they can immediately master a truck is that legally, it’s not possible. The standard-issue driver’s license covers cars, vans, and light trucks, but not buses, semi-trucks, or 18-wheelers. To legally operate one of these vehicles, you’ll need a commercial driver’s license or CDL. Obtaining a CDL requires more than logging the hours and passing a road test; you’ll need to pass several classes and exams before you can be trusted with a bigger set of wheels and a bigger set of responsibilities.
Size and Weight
The sheer size and weight of a semi-truck vis-à-vis your average four-door sedan is enough to make it a horse of a different size and weight. (The color may still be the same.) From there, it’s simple physics; a bigger, heavier object is going to take much longer to stop, which means you’ll have to get a whole new feel for braking. Negotiating rough terrain such as hills and slippery roads is also more difficult behind the wheel of a bigger automobile and requires even more care than you would take in your everyday car.
If you’ve ever gotten stuck behind a semi-truck, you’ve read the sign on the back of the trailer that cautions tailing the vehicle due to the nature of its wide right turns. When you’re pulling a trailer behind you, both left and right turns are more difficult. As with braking, learning to turn when behind the wheel of a semi-truck is akin to learning how to drive all over again.
In high school driver’s ed, you were reminded every day to check your mirrors and blind spots each time you signal a turn. Hopefully, you’ve maintained that habit. You’ll need it as a truck driver, with bigger mirrors and much bigger blind spots. Semi-trucks have sizable blind spots in front of, alongside, and directly behind the truck. Even the biggest and best Peterbilt mirrors can’t catch everything.
With great power comes great responsibility, and a commercial driver’s license is indeed great power. As professional drivers, CDL bearers are expected to meet a high standard of driving excellence, as well as set that standard for others. What separates driving a semi-truck from driving a car is not only following the rules of the road but also observing all federal regulations concerning commercial driving safety. That means absolutely no texting while driving or driving drunk—you are, after all, the professionals.