Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Middle lane hogger and the motorway drivers

Middle lane hogging seems to be a universally deplored driver fault, yet it is still extremely widespread. So what is it?

Middle lane hogging occurs on motorways where there are at least 3 lanes. It is the practice of driving in the middle lane when the left hand lane is not occupied. That's the basic definition, here's a bit more detail:

"Driving: the essentials skills", that fascination DSA publication that all learner drivers are supposed to read states that you should, "Keep to the left-hand lane unless there are a great many slower vehicles ahead - it's possible to stay in the centre or outer lanes while you are overtaking a number of slower moving vehicles, but don't stay in these lanes longer than you have to, or if you are delaying traffic behind you."(my italics) So, the middle lane is for overtaking, if there are no vehicles to your left to overtake, you shouldn't be in that lane.

There are some middle lane hoggers who persist in driving in the middle lane when the rest of the road is fairly empty. I have often wondered about the demographic of these drivers. It is sometimes men who, I think, don't want to travel in the left hand lane because they consider it to be the slow lane and while they don't want to actually break the speed limit and go into the fast lane with the big boys (they have a family to support and a position in society to uphold), driving in the left hand lane would damage their credibility with themselves to such an extent as to be the final nail in the coffin of their youthful rebellion. Having said that, middle lane hoggers are often just people of either sex who are too oblivious to the way that roads are supposed to function to notice that what they are doing is wrong.

While, such middle lane hoggers are irritating they are generally fairly harmless. There is a related issue though, which does lead to some pretty dangerous driving on multi-lane roads of all kinds - the practice of driving in the middle or right hand lanes even if they are too full to be used for overtaking and causing them to bunch up close together at high speeds.

If the left-hand lane is going more slowly than you want to go and the lane to the right is empty then obviously, you change lane and off you go. However, if the left-hand lane is going more slowly than you want to go but the lane(s) to the right is(are) also blocked what do you do? My response is that if you cannot use the lanes to the right of you for the purpose for which they are intended - overtaking - then you shouldn't go in them at all. You should wait until the lane to the right is clear (or at least going fast enough to be able to use it for overtaking) before going into it. This should mean that in a situation of heavy traffic, the left lane should be fullest and each subsequent lane to the right should be increasingly empty but the opposite is often true. The right hand lane is often full of cars travelling far too close together at 70mph or higher. The middle lane, or right hand lane on 2 carriageway roads, is often going more slowly than the left hand lane.

Does this mean that those in the left hand lane should slow down to avoid committing the cardinal sin of overtaking on the inside? No, because the vehicles in that lane are doing exactly what they are supposed to. They are driving at an appropriate speed for the road in the left hand lane. I have often been in the situation (A31 going through the New Forest between Bournemouth and Southampton is a prime location for this) where I have been happily driving along in the left hand lane, in a car or a truck, and the vehicles to my right have been moving more slowly. I effectively overtake them on the inside, which winds them up so they speed up. This does not cause them to travel the overall distance any faster, it simply causes them to get dangerously close to the car in front and the whole lane bunches up.

It is a sad fact that the UK's roads are often too full for everyone to travel at the speed they want to and however much many drivers would want to overtake those in front of them, if the lane to the right is full of cars, they can't. The only safe thing to do is to take your foot off the accelerator and just accept it. It also makes the whole motorway driving experience much more pleasant if you take the competition out of it.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

On why lorry drivers overtake each other on dual-carriageways.

One of the most common things I am asked when I tell people I am a lorry driver is 'why do lorry drivers insist on overtaking each other on dual-carriageways when they are doing roughly the same speed, thus blocking the road for car drivers for ages?' So here's the answer: Well, if you are only a car driver you probably won't accept any of this as a justifiable answer but at least you'll have a bit more of an idea why.

These are the factors:

The speed limiter - laden goods vehicles (LGVs) over 7.5 tonnes, and some under this weight, are limited to 56mph. There is a mechanism in the engine which means that when you try and accelerate past this speed, nothing happens, the acceleration just stops. So, what is the point of trying to overtake each other then? Good question, but the fact is they are not all set in exactly the same place. Some don't go much beyond 54 some you can get up to 56.5. The supermarkets are often limited to 53 as this is supposedly optimum fuel consumption speed. If you take the A34 connecting the major transport hub of Southampton to the Midlands, many lorries are travelling the full length of it. It is 110 miles from Southampton to Northampton, a distance that would be travelled almost exclusively on dual-carriageways. A difference of 2 miles an hour would make a difference of 4 minutes on the overall journey. This may not seem like much but it brings me onto the next point -

Time pressures - lorry drivers are under pressure for time both from their transport offices and from the tachograph regulations. Most long-distance lorries are satellite tracked so their transport office knows what speed they are doing and if they are not doing the speed they could be doing, the office will want to know why. Routes are worked out according to how long it ought to take and if you are not sticking to time, connecting routes will be thrown out of schedule (this is especially the case for things like Royal Mail, DHL etc.). Routes are also worked out to make sure that your tacho breaks fall at convenient times for the deliveries. You can drive for 4.5 hours before you have to take a 45 minute break. Last week 5 minutes was the difference between me making it home on time at and me being stuck in the Midlands for 45 minutes, thus making all the post I was carrying late.

The other factors that influence my choice of whether or not to overtake and block the road for ages are:

Load differences and hills - a vehicle that is heavily laden is not going to make it up the hills as fast as one that isn't. However, while some vehicles have a feature where the exhaust brake kicks in automatically to make sure you stay at the speed the limiter is set to, many do not. This means that a vehicle that is heavily laden will actually go faster down the hills that one that isn't. Frighteningly fast in fact! (69 is the fastest I have ever got a laden lorry to go, I tried to break the speed limit for cars but I didn't quite get there. It was fun but scary and I certainly won't be doing it again!). When deciding to overtake you have to make the decision about whether overall you are going faster than the one in front or not. The A34 is hilly, so if you are overtaking downhill (or uphill, depending on which one of you is laden) you also have to decide whether you are going to make it past the lorry in front before the gradient changes again. Personally if I'm being overtaken uphill and the lorry overtaking hasn't managed to get back in by the time we are going downhill again and going the same speed, I tend to brake to let them in to get the road moving smoothly, as long as I accept that overall they are going faster than me. If I don't think they are, and think they were just being aggressive, I won't slow down because I know that sooner or later I will probably have to overtake them again. This may well end up as a scrap that blocks the road for ages.

The final factor is cruise control. Let's take the A31 coming out of Bournemouth towards Southampton through the New Forest. It has some very long steep hills and at certain times, is very busy. If you are driving a lorry up a hill on cruise control and suddenly realise there is a slow-moving vehicle ahead and brake, thereby taking the cruise control off, your speed could drop by 20mph in an instant, which is dangerous, and it can take miles on the A31 to get that speed back. If you pull out straight away and get past it, it takes seconds and everyone is happy. This is a very thinly veiled way of saying 'Oy! Car drivers! Let us pull out!'.

So anyway, these are the reasons why. Having said all that, the speed limit on dual-carriageways for LGVs over 7.5 tonnes is actually only 50 mph but I have heard from a retired policeman that there is an unwritten agreement between the police and the LGV industry that truckers won't be prosecuted for driving at the limiter on dual-carriageways. I certainly know of truckers who have been stopped doing 56 and the police have not batted an eyelid about the speed and I have never known anyone be prosecuted for it but you never know.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Driver Stereotypes - call for comments

I am starting a blog project looking at driver stereotypes, how accurate they are, why those people drive like that, that kind of thing. I am looking for suggestions on which groups to look at. White van man is probably the most obvious, maybe school run Mums, taxi drivers, truckers (don't be scared, I can take it!).

Basically who can be relied on on the road to piss you off? Equally who do you trust to, on the whole, drive safely and courteously or in a manner that you like?

Let me know.


Thursday, 19 August 2010


Since I left my job at the builders merchant, I have been trying to build up experience of both teaching in rigid trucks and driving articulated ones. One company in this area that takes agency drivers without Class 1 (artic) experience is The Royal Mail. It's a lovely company to work for, especially after the harsh world of the construction industry. A lot of the workers there are committed postal workers and would never have worked anywhere else. The company looks after the staff and the vehicles and I have been given training and support to get started driving artics, even though I am only an agency driver. So all in all, I like The Royal Mail.

Post moves at night. Nearly all the shifts involve a majority of driving during the hours of darkness and the canteens in a lot of the depots I visit are staffed all night.

Last night I did a shift which started here on the South coast around midday and finished back here 12 hours later. The bit in the middle was mainly spent driving around large mail centres in West London. I got to London around 5pm and left about 10.30pm. As I drove around these streets and junctions I knew solely from traffic reports - the Hangar Lane gyratory, the Polish war memorial roundabout - the traffic gradually died down as the sun set, and I gradually relaxed.

Yes, it is easier to drive an artic when the streets are empty, because artics are huge and there are lots of places around them where small vehicles like cars and bikes cannot be seen, and can easily get squashed. But it is also because as it gets dark, the population on the roads changes. The proportion of people driving for a living grows in relation to those who are just going about their daily lives and that feels safer, like you are part of a club, a club that looks out for its members. Let the self-absorbed car driver drive like they own the road in the day, they'll be gone soon enough, and we know we own the road at night.

There is a whole secret world out there of the night worker, the moles who burrow away when the rest of the world is sleeping. There is, as in any outsider community, a cameraderie among those whose working day is the wrong way up. The radio presenters, especially Alex Lester on Radio 2, cater to this peculiar bunch of truckers, shift workers and occasionally insomniacs or nursing mothers. The show is far too eccentric to be aired in the daytime.

The A roads are lined with parked up lorries with their curtains drawn, the driver sleeping inside. This lends an even more restful air to the night. I do have to be careful about taking naps whenever I can and making sure I have enough water and tea with me to keep me awake on the drive back from wherever I've been. But although I end up having less sleep than I would on day shifts and I haven't yet worked out a routine of what to eat when, I like it. I like the standing against the norm. I like the secret world.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

A break

I haven't written any posts for a while. This is partly because it is the summer and there are lots of other things to do, partly because I am trying to simultaneously start 2 new careers (while planning a third) and I need to settle into them both before I can blog about them, and partly because I am not sure where this blog is going and I want to have a think about it.

I will be back.

Monday, 28 June 2010

On femininity: S Williams v Sharapova

Some observations on femininity.

I have struggled to write anything after the last post. It was deeply personal and received a good response so I felt as if the next one ought to be similarly profound.

But it isn't!

But it is related. I mentioned in my last post the kick I get out of being strong. I really like muscles on women and there are plenty of them about on the telly at the moment in the form of tennis players.

I watched the match today between Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams. These two women exhibit aggression, competitiveness and above all power while both being extremely beautiful and feminine. Sharapova's long elegant limbs and delicate facial features stood in contrast to Williams' voluptuous curves and strong face. They both had touches of girly adornments - Sharapova her jewellery and Williams her nails and both were wearing pretty dresses.

In both cases, the fact that they are extremely powerful women, who can serve at over 100mph and who hit the ball so hard it makes them shriek, does nothing to detract from their femininity. In fact, especially in Williams' case, I think her muscles heighten her femininity, much as Eddie Izzard looks sexier and more masculine in stillettos and makeup than he does without.

I love this image of women and womanliness that can incorporate physical power. I love watching women's tennis apart from one thing: I reckon they should play 5 sets in Grand Slams just as the men do.

Monday, 14 June 2010

It's time to come out

I think the time has come to talk about my own gender. I have talked about being a woman in a man's world. I have talked about masculinity in the workplace, both mine and that of my male colleagues but I have never actually made a concerted effort to write my own gender, to narrate, if you will, my own gender identity.

So here goes.

I'm scared.

I have always had a pretty strong masculine side. It was always something I both revelled in and was ashamed of, aggressively ramming it down people's throats to cover my own shame. All the time I secretly thought it would be something I would grow out of, once I'd sorted my head out, and grown up, that kind of thing.

But the fact is, I am in my mid-30s, pretty happy and sorted in life but it's still there. I stopped doing a manual job a couple of months ago and since then my upper body has got weaker, I am losing my muscles. I started to think, maybe that's ok, maybe I don't need them any more, maybe that phase is over. But I decided at the end of last week that no, it's not ok. I swam a mile on Saturday, kayaked for 2.5 hours on Sunday and am planning a session on a rowing machine for Wednesday. I want my muscles. I get a kick out of being strong.

I also get a kick out of having long curly hair and hour glass curves.

I could go into the psychoanalysis but I'm not going to. It doesn't matter how I came to be here, this is where I am and that's fine. It's not about fighting men. I like men, I fancy them and when I'm in a relationship, I like to feel like I'm the girl. Very few people have ever suggested that I am a lesbian. It's not about sexual orientation.

It's just that the gender binary doesn't work for me. I don't like my behaviour and my choices about how I earn my living or spend my time to be defined by society's perception of what I should do because I have certain body parts. I don't like the conflation of femininity with incompetence in spatial tasks. Spatial awareness is a skill that can be learned like any other. Professional male cricketers can't catch as well when they first start at school as they can after years of training. Builders don't put up shelves as well when they are apprentices as they do after 20 years on the job. Truckers of either sex are generally rubbish at parking when they first start. So you learn.

I recognise that the male and female minds and bodies are different to a certain extent for evolutionary reasons but they are nowhere near as different as society deems them to be. They are nowhere near as different as society wants and needs them to be. The binary is convenient for society, it's that old line in the sand thing. You're one of those, I'm one of these so we need to act like this.

It may be convenient for society but it isn't very convenient for me. I'm me, I do me things and I act in a me kind of a way.

I don't really attach a label to my gender identity. I don't really know what labels are out there, I'm quite new to this whole debate (I was going to grow out of it remember!). I tend to just think that I am a strong woman, both in body and character, who is in touch with both the femininity and masculinity within her.

Friday, 4 June 2010

Women in construction and the construction of women

I have been working in the construction industry for the last 3 years but I have started doing other stuff so I thought I'd tell you a little story about what may be one of my last experiences in the industry.

Picture the scene: I was driving my truck down into Weymouth from the Wareham coast road side. In front of me I could see the colourful tower on the esplanade with the hill of Portland behind and the sea, flat calm and glittering in the sunshine to the left. The lane I wanted was blocked due to road works so I pulled out into the right hand lane and moved slowly past the roadworks along with all the other traffic. In the roadworks a tarmac tipper lorry was parked up with its back tipped and perched above a hole in the road but still closed. As I drove past at a snail's pace I noticed that the driver was a woman. I stopped my truck, she turned to me and we shared a smile. Then I drove off and we both continued with our day.

It may be that she thought that the quickest way to get rid of me was to smile at me. It may be that she smiles at everybody. However, I have always found that women working in the construction industry have made a conscious choice to go against the grain, to do something all day every day that it is not expected for them to do. I think that a recognition of that shared experience was in that smile.

I have discussed my own reasons for doing the job in a previous post and I didn't speak to this woman to ask her why she does it. However, a lot of people looking from the outside think that women working in construction and other masculine roles are themselves masculine which is why they feel more at home there but in some ways the opposite is true. If you, as a woman, are surrounded all day by men doing manly things like lifting and digging and building things, you actually feel more like a woman. Your gender identity is less challenged - it is obvious that you are a woman, because all the others are blokes.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Good driver? #2: Lack of speeding tickets

Speed is a tricky subject. There is no doubt that speed kills: if a person is hit by a car travelling at 20mph, that person has a 1 in 10 chance of being killed. When that speed is doubled to 40mph, those chances are reversed - you would only have a 1 in 10 chance of surviving.

So yes, driving more slowly reduces the risk of road deaths.

However, a lack of speeding tickets is no more proof that you are a good driver than having speeding endorsements is proof that you are a bad one. Someone may drive inappropriately slowly, causing other drivers to get annoyed and do something stupid. That would not bring that person speeding tickets but it certainly wouldn't be good driving. Equally a person who drives like a nutter then brakes hard in time for cameras may also not have points on their licence but you wouldn't want them on the road.

Speed kills if you drive too fast to react to foreseeable hazards. A child running out in front of a car is often foreseeable. You may not actually be able to see the child itself but a flying ball, a school, other kids, an ice cream van, a park or just any residential street in the middle of day should all suggest that a child may be there somewhere.

To give another example, on a motorway in heavy traffic, cars often drive too close to each other to be able to stop if the car in front brakes suddenly. Say a lorry has a blow out and there is still debris on the road. One car spots the debris too late, brakes, swerves, and this action ripples back causing several cars to collide with each other at 70mph. Fair enough, none of those drivers could see that there was debris on the road - but nor could they see that there wasn't.

In both of these cases, a safe speed is actually below the speed limit. Limits and speed cameras reduce the need to think. The law on speeding and licence points gives the message that staying within the speed limit is all that is required to stay safe but it isn't. You also have to look ahead and to think. Equally, there are cases where driving above the speed limit is reasonably safe, especially as the limits are established for day time, busy driving, but unfortunately the law does not take this into account either. Driving at 40mph past a school at 3.15 in the afternoon is not the same crime as driving past the same school at 40mph at 3.15 in the morning and should not carry the same penalty but it does. Cameras and endorsements are blunt tools that give a blunt and misleading message.

But however much you may think that the use and placement of speed cameras is less about road safety and more about making councils money, if you persistently get caught driving above the speed limit thus risking your licence and thereby your lifestyle, that's your own silly fault! The signs are plenty big enough!

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Driving Epistemology

Epistemology is the academic term referring to the filter through which you view the world and to the study of that filter. The quote that finds its way into many a Masters level essay on the subject is that "Where you stand depends on where you sit" (obviously if this were a masters level essay the quote would have to be attributed but it isn't), so my basic thesis with this post is that where you stand depends on which driving seat you are sitting in.

The vehicle you are driving, and the reason for driving it, affects your attitude to driving, to traffic as a whole and to other road users as individuals. So what is it that makes up your driving epistemology? Today I'm going to look at vehicle properties, reason for driving it, and perceived relationship to other road users although other factors are also relevant such as driving experience, gender, age.

First of all the vehicle itself, its physical properties: its size, manoeuvrability, acceleration, and visibility out of the front and the back. I am only going to talk about cars, vans and trucks because they are the ones I know best. I can ride a bike but am not a keen cyclist, I have been on a motorbike but only a couple of times and it wasn't me riding it.

Cars are small and light. They accelerate well (generally) and can fit in small gaps. The visibility is good all round. However, they are low down so you cannot see that far into the distance. Vans are fairly small and generally light if unladen. They can accelerate brilliantly and can fit in fairly small places. They are at times more manoeuvrable than a car although you cannot see out of the back and the mirrors aren't always as big as they could be. You are a little higher up than in a car and can see over cars. Lorries are large and heavy and when fully laden have very slow acceleration. Rigid ones do not like going round corners and articulated ones are extremely long. You cannot often see out of the back and even in an unladen flat-bed lorry there is still a huge blind spot behind it, easily big enough for a whole class of 5 year olds. Forwards they have fantastic visibility, you can see over everything apart from other lorries, can often see the reason for hold-ups. They have lots of mirrors although they also have blind spots. All of these properties inform the filter through which you view the traffic world and form the basis of your behaviour and attitudes.

Secondly the reason for driving plays a huge part. As a lorry driver if I am waiting to turn right from a major road into a minor road but am stopped by a stream of traffic, I will always look first for other lorries, then vans and buses, then lastly cars to let me cross. This is partly due to visibility as mentioned above but also drivers of lorries, vans and buses are generally at work. They spend hours on the road, know that the road system only works by people looking out for each other and they are being paid anyway so another couple of seconds doesn't make a huge difference. If you are on the way to work, it is your own time and any time given up is your own time wasted. Once you are at work, it's the boss' time so you don't mind 'wasting' it. A journey to the shops is one where the shopping is the primary focus and the journey is secondary, sometimes a frustration to be endured. Sometimes, if on the way back after an ordeal or on the way home when what is waiting for you is unappealing, an extended drive is a good thing and this will affect your behiaviour. These are all aspects of your driving epistemology.

The final aspect to discuss today is your perceived relationship to other road users. This is partly related to vehicle size but cars have a special place on the roads. Basically a car is the standard unit of road transport in this country today. In former times it may have been the horse, the horse and cart or the bicycle and these still predominate in other parts of the world but here it is the car. Road systems are designed for cars. Larger vehicles have to block two car lanes to get round some corners and cyclists are squashed into a too-narrow lane at the side and have to get off and walk at some junctions. So in terms of perceived relationships between various road users, cars are at the top of the tree. The car is the default option, anyone else has chosen to drive something different (fair enough there are people who can't drive and cycle as a result but many of them have made a conscious moral decision not to drive) and car drivers often relate to other road users accordingly. Their behaviour is based on this assumption of being the norm from which all others deviate.

And even for those of us who regularly drive other vehicles, once in a car it is very difficult not to do the same.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Let the crane take the strain

I have mentioned before that the area of driving that I do involves a crane. This is a lorry-mounted crane for unloading the stuff that is on the lorry only. The crane itself is known as a HIAB but HIAB is a word like Hoover or Sellotape where a brand has come to refer to the object as a whole. I am not sure I have ever actually used a HIAB but have definitely used lots of Atlas and Palfinger cranes.

When you know a crane well it is like an extension of your own arm - you don't have to think to operate it and you can achieve amazing dexterity with it. When you don't know a crane, it is like your arm when you have slept on it for several hours - you think you ought to be able to operate it but it doesn't seem to work properly and because you think you ought to be able to operate it, you feel particularly silly when you smack yourself in the face with it.

Obviously smacking yourself in the face with your own arm is unpleasant and quite a rude awakening but smacking yourself in the face with a 2 tonne crane would be lethal and is evidently something I have never done but I have come pretty close. What is actually more likely to happen is smacking someone else in the face because they have got too close to the product you are trying to move and then you have moved the lever in the wrong direction. Luckily this has also never happened otherwise I would probably be writing this from a cell in the nearest prison, but I have had to warn builders that it might happen and to stand well back. "It's alright, love, I trust you" one said to me. "Well I wouldn't stand that close and I'm the one operating the controls" was my reply. He moved.

I am now doing agency work so I am driving a different truck with a different crane every few days. I am having to deconstruct what I do when I operate a crane and learn how to do it all over again. There is always the same combination of actions and corresponding levers - slew left and right, main beam up and down, secondary beam up and down, extension in and out, grab rotate left and right, grab open and shut - but they are sometimes back to front and the levers operate the other way up. It is like learning to operate my arm again. It is sometimes frustrating but it has also reinvigorated my enjoyment of the job, which is lovely.

The sunshine helps.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Book Review: Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt, 2008

I bought this book because I work in the industry and I bought a handfull of books about driving a few months ago. Most are dull and are written by men who find The Highway Code exciting, have memorised it, and can and do spout large sections of it at you, if you ever have the misfortune to meet them. This one is different.

This book is not actually about driving as much as it is about traffic. It does touch on the cognitive processes involved in operating a vehicle, but most of it is about the movement of people in vehicles as a totality. It is about the psychology of traffic, about what happens to us when we as individuals climb into the driving seat of our cars and take our place in the seething mass of metal-clad humanity.

It takes this look from a variety of different standpoints. The studies he draws on and the people he interviews come from driving psychology, anthropology, sociology, economics and traffic engineering as well as a bit from entomology (apparently we behave more like locusts than like ants). It is exceptionally well-researched and the notes make up nearly half of the total pages. However, he still manages to draw all of these fields together into a very coherent book.

I'll give you some examples of interesting facts: human eyes were not designed to travel at 60+mph so we cannot take in enough information at that speed. Therefore we have to create shortcuts - we see what we expect to see. These shortcuts lead us to miss the glaringly obvious - motorbikes for example - because there were no motorbikes on that road in the previous 20 times we drove it.

Different countries have developed different driving norms over the years. In the UK our vehicles and road systems have evolved gradually over the last couple of centuries. Our norms are therefore entrenched in our society - this includes the adherence to some rules and the non-compliance with others. We are all generally aware of how we are supposed to drive and the perameters within which we may flout those rules. China on the other hand, has seen a massive increase in motorisation in the last 10 years and has therefore not had a chance to develop regulation, either statutary or societal. This is not just about driving, it's about society and how norms of any kind evolve.

I found this book really interesting and would recommend it to anyone who takes even a passing interest in driving and traffic. However, even more than that, I would recommend it to anyone who takes even a passing interest in the process of crafting a book, because on that count it is really quite exceptional.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Whether the weather....

Whether the weather be fine,
Or whether the weather be not,
Whether the weather be cold,
Or whether the weather be hot,
We'll whether the weather
Whatever the weather,
Whether we like it or not!

This has been the longest coldest winter for 30 years and I have been working outside.
-So what do you want, a medal?
Well actually, yes. A medal would be lovely, or some kind of engraved cup to put on the mantlepiece to remind me what an achievement it has been. Four long months of standing next to my truck in freezing temperatures operating the remote control, and then the slow, agonising process of uncurling my fingers so that they work again. Four months of my back seizing up. Four months of dry, brittle skin.

It was lovely today, I was even in short sleeves. Thank God for that.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

On gender

This is the first time that I have posted about gender. I have mentioned the fact that I am a woman working in a man's world and the fact that that is often commented on but that is about my sex, not my gender.

For those of you who aren't social scientists, let me explain the difference between sex and gender: sex is biological. On a basic level, your sex is determined by what bits you have. On the whole we are divided into male and female although there are people who have bits of both naturally (intersex) and those who have chosen to alter what they were given at birth (transgender/transexual).

Gender is social. It is about identity, it is about how you feel and how you express yourself. A man can be feminine, a woman can be masculine, and either can display a mixture of both characteristics. It is about performance and narration. It is about what you do and how you tell the story of what you do, to yourself and to others. It is about other people's perceptions of you. Gender is an aspect of personal identity that comes about through interaction with other people and their beliefs and expectations. It is socially constructed.

I'll start with masculinity and men. I will give you two examples:
One of my driving colleagues displays a lot of traits typically thought of as feminine - he is very clean and tidy, he gets upset by dirt and smells, especially those created by other people. He is caring and makes a point of trying to be helpful. On the other hand, he also displays some extremely masculine behaviour - shouting and swearing a lot, spitting on the ground, although this never strikes me as particularly convincing, especially as he doesn't swear at all if you talk to him on his own. While we were all waiting to clock out one day, a conversation took place about ballet during which someone said to him that they could just see him in a tutu and others agreed. I might have expected him to start arguing with the bloke who said it, but he didn't seem that bothered by the comment but did instantly start scuffing round the shed kicking stuff and spitting on the ground. He is clearly aware that by nature he is not the most masculine of blokes but in such a masculine environment he feels the need to conform to a standard image of what blokes ought to be. This isn't about being scared people will think that he is gay because he quite obviously isn't. I actually think it is just that he is young and hasn't quite worked out how to be gentle and caring and still be a bloke so he goes too far the other way with the spitting.

There is a divide in a builder's merchant between the inside people - admin, management, shop staff - and the outside people - yard staff and drivers. The outside is obviously more masculine than the inside because it is dirty, it involves heavy lifting, it involves vehicles and it is frequently cold and wet. The inside people don't need to wear gloves or steel toe caps and often only wear uniform t-shirts but not hard wearing trousers.

The second example of performances of masculinity happened when I had to go inside to collect a roll of damp proof membrane (DPM) from the shop. DPM is heavy - once it is on my shoulder I can carry it ok but getting it onto my shoulder or lifting it from the ground is sometimes tricky. One of the shop staff collected the roll for me and then struggled to know what to do with it. As a member of shop staff giving the roll to a member of outside staff he would automatically expect me to pick it up and take it out to my truck myself. As a man giving a heavy item to a woman he would take the roll out to the vehicle himself. In a work environment I would never expect someone to lift something for me, I have chosen to do this job so I will do it the same as the men. Occasionally I ask someone to take the other end of something with me if I really can't manage it. In the end he gave me the DPM to lift and one of his colleagues made fun of him for not being a gentleman. The question here was the perception in his mind of who was more masculine - me or him. I shall list the pertinent traits:
Him - male (m), inside (f), hair do (f), smart shoes (f)
Me - female (f), outside (m), had made no effort with appearance (m), tall and strong (m).
Obviously it is not as simple as him thinking 'I have a hairdo therefore I will not lift the DPM' but all these factors unconsciously made up his perception of our relative masculinity. If I had been wearing a skirt and make up, he would almost certainly have made a different decision. I could have made the decision for him by either picking it up straight away or asking him to take it out for me but I have to admit I was finding it entertaining to watch him squirm!

Monday, 22 March 2010


Another aspect of working for a company that I will be very glad to get away from is the uniform. I am an accessory to company branding, I wear the same uniform as everyone else, as well as all the vehicles.

From the ground up: steel toe-cap boots, black trousers, green sweatshirt with company logo over polo shirt with the same. The only area of my appearance where I have any choice is my hair which I wear as loose as my job will allow.

From a distance I can recognise one of my own species, both human and vehicular. The customer can too, obviously, and knows what to look for in the branch and who to turn to for help. Even if I can't help them because it isn't my job to know what they are asking, I am a representative so I have to answer them anyway. I am merely one of any number of identically clad people, it doesn't matter who we are or what job we are supposed to do. We are simply a massed whole. A company unit, not an individual.

13 days and counting.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Works sucks (you in)

Working the same job, at the same time, in the same place every day, following the same routine for getting in and getting home, turns you into an automaton. This is not wholly a bad thing because sometimes you just have to get your head down and work - to support your family, to save for a house - and the more mindless your job is the easier it is to switch your mind off completely and let your body go through the motions.

That is what I have done for the last few years and I now want to switch my mind back on again. This means, however, that I will be forced to appreciate the full horror of working for the last few weeks. I am hoping that by blogging it, it won't be so bad.

My working day starts when I clock in. I lose money if I clock in late. I have a card with my name on it and my working day starts when that card slides into the machine with that familiar wrrzh and clunk. If someone else clocks me in, it doesn't feel as if my working day has started properly, so I have to walk to the clock machine anyway. That's how much of an automaton I have become, if the processes don't happen in the right order, or one process is missing, it throws the whole system out. By this time I will have parked my car in the same place as I always park it and will have picked my truck keys from the hook where they always hang. I then climb into my truck, fill in my tacho, do my vehicle checks, drive to the front of the building and get a cup of 55 normal from the vending machine. I then drink my drink while checking my load for the afternoon and have roughly the same conversations with the other drivers as I have done for years.

There are reasons why we are creatures of habit. I am sure that a social anthropologist could give you a fine academic term for the process and the evolutionary reasons why it happens but I'm not a social anthropologist so this is my take: by doing the same thing at the same time every day, it makes sure that that thing gets done without you having to think about it. It is a short cut, a well-programmed function key on a keyboard. From the minute my alarm goes off up until the time that I drive out of the yard after my hot chocolate and inane chat, the same things have to happen every morning so by doing them the same way every day, I don't really have to remember them.

I am programmed.

But that is also the road to cabin fever. That is the road to the human equivalent of the chained up bear on television appeals for Worldwide Fund for Nature, rocking from one side to the other, his head lolling from side to side. Long after the physical chains have been removed his mental chains still bind him to his enclosed space. This is why some old people just keel over and die as soon as they retire. This is why so many former servicemen end up in prison. Once you have been programmed it is very hard to be that free thinking, fish catching, tree climbing bear you were born to be.

That's why I'm getting out now while I still know how to catch fish.

Friday, 12 March 2010

The countdown has started

Today I handed in my notice. In four weeks time I will be leaving the job that I have been doing since July 2007, that'll be 2 years and 9 months in the same job. This is pretty much unheard of for me and it will almost certainly be the only time I ever hold down a job for so long.

So was it a fantastic job that I wanted to stay in it so long? No, of course not. It was a 44 hour a week HGV driving job for a builders merchant. It has been hard work, I have had to work every other Saturday, lift heavy stuff, get patronised on building sites, stand outside operating a crane when my hands are so cold I can't feel them and then are agony when I get back inside the cab and warm them up again.

So why did I stay? It has been a means to an end and it has served that end pretty well. When I started the job I was in a mess. I had recently relocated so I didn't really know anyone. I was in a bad relationship - I knew it was bad but I didn't have the strength to get out of it. I was very unhappy, I had given up on all the careers I felt I ought to try and felt horribly ashamed of myself for it, but I had no idea what I did want to do.

All I knew was that whatever it was, I had to do it my way.

So in the last 2 years and 9 months, I have got out of the bad relationship, got out of debt, made lots of friends, sold a flat where I used to live and bought one down here, qualified in various things which I can do on a freelance basis and basically have set myself up for the next few years of living life in the way that I choose. And this job has been a constant in all of these things, something I could rely on and it has never mattered how mad I felt at times because I could just get in my truck and shout and cry and do whatever I needed to do, just as long as I still did the job ok and was passably nice to my colleagues.

So there we are. Another milestone. And hopefully soon, a new adventure.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

So you think you're a good driver #1: Lack of accidents

What makes a good driver?

When you first start learning to drive, the technical skill of handling the vehicle is all you can think about. Once you have mastered that to a basic level, with a lot of input from the instructor, you start interacting with other road users. By the time you pass your test, the idea is that the basic elements of handling the car - accelerating, braking, changing gear - are second nature, leaving you enough time to think ahead and notice and assess the behaviour of other road users and act accordingly.

For some people that is all they ever manage to do and they are happy with that. Others think they are really good drivers but what do they mean by that?

What are the criteria that people use for judging what is a good driver?

Lack of accidents in life time

Lack of speeding tickets or other infringements

Skill in manoeuvring the vehicle

Adherence to driving rules as they were taught

Adherence to rules as laid down in highway code

Adherence to set of rules they have made up

Let's take these in turn:
Lack of accidents in lifetime. For a start the word 'accidents' is problematic to anyone trained in the driver training industry. An accident is something unintentional and unavoidable. On the whole, traffic collisions are avoidable. If you look where you are going and think about what you are doing and about what other people are doing, you shouldn't really be hitting anything. Fair enough, those who are involved in so-called 'accidents' don't intend to actually hit anything but not intending to hit anything is not the same as making sure you don't hit anything.

So on to lack of accidents as a criterion for judging good driving. Well done, you have never driven into another vehicle, pedestrian or item of street furniture but that doesn't tell the full story. You could be driving down the road leaving a trail of destruction in your wake in a cartoon style, screaching brakes, handbrake turns and emergency stops being the aftermath of every journey. You could be driving in such as way to create a bad atmosphere on the roads so that all who come within your personal driving space are left more annoyed than they were before, thus spreading ripples of road rage throughout the area. It is easily possible to do this while still never coming into physical contact with another road user.

So next time you hear yourself claim to be a good driver because you've never had an accident, take a look in the mirror.

Monday, 25 January 2010

On the relationship of trucker to truck

I'm not the kind of person who names vehicles. I have never assigned a gender to any car I have driven, let alone a name. But a truck is different.

I have driven the same truck pretty much every day since I started the job two and a half years ago. That is over 5000 hours I have spent in the same vehicle. There can't be many people in whose company I have spent 5000 hours - my family obviously, my best friend probably - but only people I have known a long time and love. I know all its foibles, I know when it doesn't feel quite right, I know how often it has developed certain faults and how to persuade it to get over them. My lorry also has a crane, so it even has a limb. So it has always felt like a living being.

She has always been a she. Her gender was established early on. She is extremely capable, large and perfectly formed, as am I. Added to that, when I first started the job I was extremely nervous but felt I had to hide it, to avoid any suggestion that I shouldn't be in the job if I couldn't handle it. For that reason I felt a solidarity with her, as if, together, we could take on the world, or the job in hand at least.

I never intended to name her, but she named herself.

After I had been in the job about 6 months, she had been in for MOT so I had had to drive another much smaller truck for a few days (truck MOTs take at least 3 days). Everything was in slightly the wrong place and it had a crane that could do little more than drag things off the bed of the lorry and drop them on the floor next to it. When I got mine back at the end of the week I was ridiculously pleased to see her. It was so comfortable to be back in that driving seat, with all the controls where I was used to them. I was aware I was very pleased to be reunited with her but I thought to myself that I still wasn't going to name her, but then a voice in my head said, 'unless she's called Diane'. So Diane she became.

She is not the kind of Diane who wears a twinset and emphasises the second syllable. No. She is the kind of DI-ane who runs a greasy spoon, has gold earrings up each ear and has forearms you would never want to challenge to an arm wrestle. But she's the kind of woman you would want on your side in any argument and who would look after you if you had had a row with your boyfriend, but who would also tell you if the argument was your fault.

I am no longer nervous in the job and have driven quite a few other vehicles recently. Many of these are much smaller and now that I feel I have proved myself, I sometimes wish I drove a more manoeuvrable one. But then I get back in mine and think, 'Nah. You'll do.'

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Driving discussion point #1: Flash! Ah ah!

The highway code states that the only meaning we can attribute to someone flashing their headlights is that they are merely letting you know that they are there. As with sounding the horn, flashing headlights indicates presence and nothing more.

Meanwhile, back in the real world, flashing headlights can mean any number of things in different situations:

If, for example, you are in the right hand lane of a dual carriageway, overtaking the vehicle to your left in your own sweet time, and someone drives up behind you and flashes their headlights, they are not merely saying ,"Not sure if you've noticed, but I'm right behind you." The chances are that you have already noticed that they are right behind you and you understand perfectly what they are really saying, which is, "GET OUT OF MY WAY NOW!". They may also be saying "I'm bigger/faster/richer/posher/more glamorous/more daring/more important than you" and the chances are you understand that too.

Another example is when you are waiting to turn right across a stream of traffic and one of that stream flashes their headlights. You know straight away that they are inviting you to cross their path. In fact, if they did not flash their headlights you might think they were slowing to look at a house number, to change a cd, to pick up the lit cigarette that they had just dropped onto the carpet. If you do not move when they flash their headlights, the chances are they will shout from the auditory equivalent of a bullet proof pope mobile, "What are you waiting for? A written invitation?".

Fair enough, there are situations when flashing can be ambiguous. In a situation where a residential street has cars parked on both sides leaving only enough room for one car to pass between them, if someone flashes at you, it is possible they are flashing at someone else exiting a drive that you haven't seen, so it is always worth having a good look before acting on a flash.

But essentially, not only does flashing have a huge variety of meanings in different situations, we generally understand what those meanings are.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

What's a nice girl like you doing in a truck like this?

This is a question I often get asked. Well, I have never actually heard it worded just like that but I do get asked a lot how I got into the job. So I'll tell you.

I got into the job the same way that many female truck drivers (mothertruckers I've heard us called! I wouldn't feel happy referring to myself as one but I like the wordplay) get into it - I was going out with a trucker, went out with him in his truck a few times and thought, this looks like fun, I'll do this. I had already been a driving instructor for a couple of years and had always loved driving so it was not the huge leap that it could have been. I was in need of a job, I needed one that required little brain power and little human interaction, so I started on agency driving vans and then the agency paid for me to do my HGV licence.

"Why don't you work in a nail bar or something?" is one question I have been asked. "I bet you get a lot of comments" is one of the most frequent comments I get. I deliver building supplies so driving a lorry onto building sites is what I do all day every day. It is a totally male dominated world although the company I work for normally has at least one girl in each branch, generally doing the accounts. I cannot deny that being the only woman in the area doing my job does give me a thrill, it is part doing a job that suits me (or used to), part feminist crusade and part showing off.

My truck's wheel base is 2' longer than the others in the fleet, which makes a pretty big difference to the turning circle, so there comes a point when my truck will not turn into spaces that the other trucks can. On building sites it is sometimes suggested in an underhand way that the reason I can't get the truck into the space when all the blokes can is that I am incapable and that they should send a proper driver. Obviously this is very irritating and can really get me down because there is part of me that feels pretty incapable anyway at times. Equally, if one of the blokes refuses a reverse manoeuvre he may well be told, "your lady driver did it" so it works both ways. Sometimes the builders play us off against each other and I have been rung up in my truck a couple of times to confirm whether I did the reverse or not!

There are days when I wish I didn't do this job, when it's -5 outside for example, but I have never wished I worked in nail bar. Although I do have beautiful purple sparkly toenails at the moment.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Why lorry drivers are more likely to let you out.

Much has been written about driver stereotypes - the woman driver, the 4x4 driver, the white van man - and much of it is true. There are exceptions to every rule but stereotypes generally do not become stereotypes without a grain of truth in them. I have often been told that if you need to pull out at a junction, you are better off trying to get in front of a lorry than in front of a car. Is that because lorry drivers are nicer than car drivers? Is it because lorry drivers are more often than not (another stereotype with exceptions) men and men are more likely to let women out and it is my female friends who have told me this? Not necessarily. These are the reasons that I have spotted:

Lorry drivers are at work. If the stuff gets to where it's going now this minute or a couple of minutes later, it doesn't really matter to them. It is not their time anyway, it's the company's, so it doesn't make much difference to them if they give some of it away. They are still at work whether they let you out or not, so they might as well. Car drivers are often driving to get to somewhere in order to do something, so the journey is just an inconvenience to be endured and they want it over as soon as possible, so that the real business of what they are going to do can start.

Lorry drivers spend hours and hours every week on the roads, they are forever pulling out at junctions and it takes ages for them to do it. If nobody ever let them out, they would never get anywhere. They are aware of the functioning of the road system in terms of the big picture, and the big picture would function much more smoothly if people let each other out a bit more. Car drivers rarely do the mileage that lorries do (and if they do, will probably be more generous at letting people out) so they do not see the big picture, they are blinkered about getting to where they need to go.

A lorry driver's eyes are on average 8' up in the air! They can see much further than cars, can see if someone is waiting to pull out in plenty of time to slow down and let them. As a car driver, I want to let people into the queue of traffic because I know how much more smoothly the roads would operate if more people did, but from the little box with a small windscreen that is a car, it is much harder to see when someone is waiting and I can often not stop in time.

There are plenty of things that people hate truckers for and I will probably address some of those in later posts, but on the whole, the really irritating or good things that people do on the roads have good explanations behind them.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Please don't throw snowballs at trucks.

Something has to be said about the weather. It is the longest cold spell that this country has seen since 1981. I live on the South coast of England so our weather is always the least extreme of anything we see on the television. The rare times that it does snow, it never lasts very long, but this time the temperatures have not risen above freezing for several days so the snow that did fall on Tuesday (it is now Friday) has not melted. The main roads are fairly clear, but the residential streets are still pretty slippery.

I drive a lorry. The driving seat from which I write is in a DAF CF - a large rigid lorry. Now, driving on ice in a car that does not have special tyres that are designed for it is pretty unpleasant. At all times you are worried that you are going to lose control, that you are going to slide into someone else's car and therefore, that you are going to have the hassle of claiming on insurance, living without your car while it's fixed and all the financial stress that comes with that. Cars are fairly small, light and only have 4 wheels. Most do not have particularly good traction control.

Lorries, especially rigid ones, are actually pretty stable. Mine has a minimum of six wheels in contact with the ground at any one time, and if there is enough weight on the back, another two drop down. The wheels are all really big, the truck is very heavy, it has traction control, anti-skid control and, in case you get stuck, diff lock. However, it is also enormous so if you were to lose control and skid into a parked car, you would probably take out several cars and more than likely write them off completely (quite easily without damaging the truck at all). Equally, if you were to plough into a pavement, you could easily kill several people all at once. This is why, when I was driving down an icy slope, with parked cars and people on one side, a village green with children playing in the snow on the other, I was not very happy when one of those children threw a snowball at my window.

I don't remember throwing snowballs at trucks being a popular pastime when I was little, but then, I grew up here so snow did not play a huge part in my childhood. Nowadays, it appears that throwing snowballs at lorries is one of the things you do when it snows - you know, like make snow angels, build a snowman, have a snowball fight, throw snowballs at trucks. On the really snowy day this week, three snowballs landed on my windows and two more would have done if I hadn't stopped the truck in the middle on the road (having obviously checked my mirrors first) and glared at the kids who were about to throw them. It would only take a momentary lapse in concentration, a slight swerve of the wheel, for my truck to skid into vehicles or people and something unexpectedly flying towards my face could easily cause that. Our brains have evolved sufficiently for us to be able to design trucks, drive them and create societies in which they operate, but they have not evolved sufficiently to avoid ducking or swerving when an unknown projectile flies at our heads.

So if you are in charge of any kids, please explain to them that it's dangerous.


Monday, 4 January 2010

New Year, New Blog

Driving is an activity that transcends age, culture, race, class and gender. Anyone might drive. It is true that not everyone does drive and for some that is a political, ethical or merely financial decision, for which I respect them. But here in the UK, the country I live in and will write about, it would be a rare person who has never sat in a car, never thought about driving one or who does not have some kind of relationship with the process of driving. That is why driving fascinates me.

From the moment I turned 17, I wanted to drive. For me it meant freedom to explore, to go wherever I wanted, on my own. For the last 7 years I have driven professionally in one capacity or other and I still really enjoy the process of it. From my driving seat I can watch the sun rise and watch it set. I can notice the change of the seasons, can spot birds and animals, and my driving seat is a fantastic vantage point from which to watch the most entertaining animals of all - people.

So this blog is going to be about driving, about the way the roads work, and it is going to be about the people who use them.

I hope you enjoy it.