I was seventeen the first time I had to drive a bigger vehicle.
The subject: a seventeen-foot U-Haul with my Volvo in tow. Legally, should I have been driving that U-Haul?
But it was an emergency. I had only been driving for less than a year and I suddenly found myself in a situation where I needed to drive a big vehicle for the first time.
In the downtown area of a big city no less. A true sink or swim situation. What I learned was that the key to driving a car of any size is awareness.
And the other piece to that puzzle is practice.
1. Adjust Your Seat, Steering Wheel and Mirrors
This is driver’s ed 101. I took driver’s ed when I was fifteen at my high school. So, I deferred back to what the instructor said once I hoped into the driver’s seat. Since there wasn’t any way to adjust the seats or steering wheel. The first thing I did was adjust the mirrors so that I can see clearly without moving my body as the street quickly began to fill with cars full people on their lunch break.
2. Use Your Mirrors and Camera
With that checked, I disengaged the emergency brake and turned on my signal to let fellow motorists know that I was embarking into traffic. Then I slipped the truck in gear. It lurched forward letting me know it was ready to go. Using the mirrors, I tried to get an idea of how far the cars behind me were to estimate how much room I needed to start moving into traffic. Once I felt I had enough room, I nosed the truck into traffic. Success! I didn’t hit anything. No one hit me. No one even honked at me. My heart was pounding.
3. Leave Lots of Room
Next, it was time to give her a little gas. I knew that take off in a bigger car wasn’t going to feel as immediate as when I was behind the wheel of my Volvo. But I didn’t want to overcompensate so much that I send the U-Haul into the back of the car in front of me. So, I gave the accelerator a little press. When I was sure I knew what to expect I gave her a little more always making sure there was at least a car length between me and the car in front of me.
4. Beware Your Blind Spots
Now firmly in the center lane I was checking my blind spots like a day trader watching a stock ticker. And I have to applaud my fellow motorists that day. There was no way of them knowing how inexperienced the driver behind the wheel of that U-Haul was. They did a fantastic job of giving me plenty of room. The whole thing was nerve racking for sure. I did my best not to think of getting a traffic ticket or getting into an accident.
5. Give Yourself Time to Stop
Every time traffic approached a stop light, I took my foot off the accelerator and hovered over the brake. If the light turned red, I started stopping way before the car in front of me did always giving a car length’s space until we came to a complete stop. If the traffic light remained green, I didn’t hit the gas until the car in front of me crossed the street. The gap I gave myself came in handy when the occasional car rudely swerved into my lane.
6. Don’t Go Too Fast
I’m not sure if they still have them. But U-Haul trucks used to have warning stickers plastered throughout the cab telling you to take it easy as you drive. Unless I’m mistaken, I seem to remember one stickers that said something like, Speed kills. There was no way I was going to take the same chances I felt confident taking in my Volvo. If the speed limit said 35, I went 35 and no faster. However, there were times when I had to go faster than the posed speed limit to keep up with the flow of traffic. Easy does it.
7. Avoid Sudden Movements
The last thing you want to do is make sudden movement in any large car. A bigger car like a Chevy Suburban or the U-Haul I was driving weighs more than a smaller car like a Toyota Corolla. Any sudden movement throws the car off balance, and it takes a bigger car more time and effort to recover.
In an unrelated incident involving another U-Haul this time my Dad was driving a 14-footer with my sister and me and the family car in tow. As he reached for some pork rinds, he made a sudden jerky movement to catch something falling off the dash. The next thing you know we’re speeding through a ditch. Being an otherwise good driver, he recovered. And we were back on solid pavement unharmed. But it was a good reminder that cars of any size demand your full attention. Which neatly brings me to my next point about driving bigger cars.
8. Avoid Distractions
I guess I should have mentioned that I had a passenger with me that was of legal age to drive the U-Haul. But she couldn’t drive. In the passenger seat, she kept panicking about all the cars zooming around us. It got so bad that I had to pull over the U-Haul and explained to her that while I understand her anxiety about the situation. When she expressed it like that it distracted me from my driving which could get us, and a lot of people hurt. As soon as she calmed down, I eased back into traffic.
After a few hours behind the wheel of that U-Haul I got used to its size. Making turns, changing lanes and keeping up with traffic became fun. I knew when to start hitting the brake even before the car in front of me started to stop. I knew how big a birth I needed to ensure the trailer swung around behind me without getting caught on a sidewalk. I knew how much room I needed to change lanes. About the only thing I hadn’t figured out in about three hours of driving was how to make the trailer go where I wanted it to when backing up. But you know how I fixed that? Practice.