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Last week I was driving on a pan-european journey and I missed an exit due to a truck passing two of its peers. The passing process took kilometers to succeed an in the mean time I was stuck behind the passing truck and the two trucks being passed. In the mean time I had traffic behind me and as such missed the exit. It was quite a scary situation, but it made me wonder why do truck drivers do this?

In Europe big trucks have speed reducers which top their max speed at 90 km/h. In my opinion, trucks passing each other at a painstaking pace on European highways are one of the most annoying behaviours in traffic.

I don't get why they do. There is no use in passing each because after a passing process (with a speed difference between them of 1-2 km/h) for multiple kilometers they have gained only the length of one or two trucks, at the same time caused a dangerous situation for other road users. So, in terms of time gained, it is next to nothing. At the same time they have caused a delay for the traffic behind them which is a lot bigger then the seconds gained by the passing truck, since cars usually drive 30 km/h faster.

What gain am I missing?

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Basically because they can -- it's not illegal and you were on a multi-lane road (it sounds like) so they may have felt they could.

So, why? Well truck drivers are paid in a variety of ways (from Wikipedia):

Truck drivers are paid according to many different methods. These include salary, hourly, and a number of methods which can be broadly defined as piece work. Piece work methods may include both a base rate and additional pay. Base rates either compensate drivers by the mile or by the load.

A company driver who makes a number of "less than truckload" (LTL) deliveries via box truck or conventional tractor-trailer may be paid an hourly wage and/or a certain amount per mile, and/or per stop (aka "drop" or "dock bump"), and/or per piece delivered, unloaded, or "tailgated" (moved to the rear of the trailer).

The main advantage of being paid by the mile may be that a driver is rewarded according to measurable accomplishment. The main disadvantage is that what a driver may accomplish is not so directly related to the effort and, perhaps especially, the time required for completion.

And even those salaried or on hourly wages probably get bonuses for completing jobs on time (or, worse, fines for being late). Additionally it may be possible that they're not being paid while empty. All of that adds up to a great pressure to get where your going as fast as (safely) possible. But, there are strict EU rules on hours truckers can work (from the UK government site):

The main points of EU rules on breaks and rest are that you must take:

  • at least 11 hours rest every day - you can reduce this to 9 hours rest 3 times between any 2 weekly rest periods
  • an unbroken rest period of 45 hours every week - you can reduce this to 24 hours every other week
  • a break or breaks totalling at least 45 minutes after no more than 4 hours 30 minutes driving
  • your weekly rest after 6 consecutive 24-hour periods of working, starting from the end of the last weekly rest period taken

So, to take a completely made-up to make my point example, assume a driver needs an 11 hour rest period -- they have 13 hours to drive. If they have to drive 1100 km and average 83 km/h then they'll overshoot the 13 hours about 21 km away from their destination and have to start again the next day. But if they average 85 km/h they'll make it inside the window (admittedly with only 3 and a 1/2 minutes to spare). That extra speed could mean they make the delivery on time, they get to sleep in a decent place in town rather than their truck, the truck can be loaded while their sleeping and they can start again with a new job the next day.

Basically, just a little faster can make a difference. And over the career of a driver that can add up. I'd guess they just get used to maxing their distance covered when they can.

Does that apply to that particular driver? Who knows? He may have been in a bad mood, or having some competition with the other drivers or was trying to get home for the birth of his child (OK, now I've just making things up).

Was it a bit crap to pull that move across an exit? Sure. But maybe he didn't know there was an exit, or didn't think anyone wanted to take it. And, as the comments say, there are places where trucks can't overtake -- maybe this was the last chance for a while.

In general truck drivers are don't want to be bad drivers, they want public support for a difficult job (and also for when they strike). Also they're regular road users, they've seen all the bad behavior and don't want to be 'that guy'. Plus there's the common "How's my driving, call: XXX-XXX-XXXX" sign that can land them in trouble.

It depends on when you noticed the exit, and when you realized you weren't going to make it. You might have tried this but I would have been tempted to drop back a little to make sure the truck in front would see you, and turn the indicators (turn signal, blinkers, etc) on to show you want to change lanes. I would think that then, if it was possible and if they noticed, they would try and make space for you to make the exit. I'm not sure if CB radios are still used by truckers, or popular in Europe, but if they are it may only take one to see your signal and arrange something with the others.

It might work, worse case is you're no better off.

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    In Germany it is "overtaking with too little speed difference" and can get you an €80 ticket. On a two lane motorway overtaking must not take more than 45 seconds if other traffic is slowed down because of it. The whole thing is called "Elefantenrennen" ("elephant race"). I suppose other countries have similar rules. A problem is that a following truck can drive faster because of the reduced air resistance, once they start overtaking the air resistance grows and the lorry slows down. – gnasher729 Jan 31 '15 at 20:28
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    @gnasher729 This 45-second law sounds great in spirit but horrible in execution. It relies not only on the efficiency of the passer, but also the willingness of the drivers in the right lane to "let him back in." This is especially true for a long truck who needs extra space to merge. The 45-second law could motivate him to dangerously merge into a space where there is not room; refusing to do so he exposes himself to a ticket because of other drivers' inability to follow at a reasonable distance. I'd hope in such a situation the police would ticket the other drivers for following too closely. – The111 Feb 1 '15 at 10:27
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    @The111: Just consider the remote possibility that Germans have been used to these rules for many years and have figured out how to do this. And consider that in Germany, what the traffic police hates more than anything else is driving without enough safety distance (cameras on the motorway measure distances between cars, not speed), so what you fear is just not going to happen. – gnasher729 Feb 2 '15 at 9:24
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    @gnasher729 That is awesome. I wish USA would do it too. I have never in my life seen anybody pulled over here for close following (aka tailgating). I even see people tailgating cops. – The111 Feb 2 '15 at 9:37
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    @The111: The distance between trucks is usually sufficient for getting back in. From what I have seen on the French Autoroutes, as soon as the passing truck has cleared, the passed driver gives a signal with the lights, indicating that the passing driver can get back onto the rightmost lane. – Max Wyss Apr 24 '16 at 16:35
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I think as RoflcoptrException says, a small speed gain can make the difference.

The drivers can have a huge distance to travel, and (in the EU) the rules on allowed time before breaks is strict and enforced via tachograph etc and an extra 40-50km a day can be the difference between making the truck stop and stopping in the middle of nowhere.

As an example, I awoke one day with a big articulated lorry parked in a siding outside my house.

The French driver was pleasant (we gave him real coffee in a flask), he was delivering the next day to a company in the village we lived in (this was a Sunday), but was unwilling to move, even though a better place existed a couple of minutes up the road.

The reason, he had hit is maximum time when he arrived overnight, and although he could move the truck if necessary, he would have to restart his break time for the tachograph, meaning a delay before returning home when he unloaded the next day.

Luckily(!) for me, the siding wasn't really up to the weight of the truck (wheels started to sink into the mud), so later on (mid-afternoon) he had to make the move, and was still sitting outside the destination company the next afternoon, despite unloading at 8am.

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You should also remember that truckers are very sensitive to fuel economy, and practice many similar techniques to hypermilers. This includes using their brakes as little as possible, and maintaining a constant speed as much as possible. They also are trying to save time, as others have noted.

What this does mean is, when they are able to, they will do silly things like pass another truck, even if slowly. Mike of Trucking Truth explains exactly this: they pass each other to try and make up the time, but sometimes between one thing and another it doesn't work out that they are able to complete the pass in a reasonable amount of time. The slower truck won't slow down because that costs momentum which costs fuel; the faster truck isn't as able to deal with an incline or similar; and so they parallel for a length of road. The faster truck of course wants to pass not only to get to [destination] on time, but also to avoid slowing down himself in many cases.

In the US in major cities we tend to have regulations prohibiting trucks from driving in the leftmost lane (or lanes) when there are multiple lanes, to help avoid this.

  • Don't forget they also use cruise control, that's also part of this story. – Jan Doggen Sep 20 '16 at 20:01
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One more reason: trucks are much more sensitive to slopes. While the cruise speed of two trucks may be almost the same when it's flat, it may be quite different going uphill. However, uphill passing can be difficult: sometimes it's specifically disallowed, acceleration is harder, there may not be a good opening when you need it and visibility tends to be less. It really slows you down if you could make a hill at 80 km/h but you are stuck behind a fully loaded truck than can only do 60 km/h. Even if you eventually can pass, just getting back to 80 km/h will take some time (and a lot of extra fuel). Hence the preference to pass when it it's flat, even if there isn't a significant speed gain at the moment.

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