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.