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How cars can share the highway safely with big rigs

Dear Car Fix: Our family is taking a road trip this spring break, and we have a new driver. They never taught him about driving on the highways with the big trucks, and he's a bit worried and so are we.

I know you can give me some tips to make him more comfortable, and we can all take turns driving.

-- J.H., East Aurora

Dear J.H.: Sharing the roads safely with trucks, tractor-trailers, semi-trucks and other big rigs makes many drivers nervous. All drivers that don't understand how to share the highway with big rigs are dangerous to truckers and to yourselves. Luckily, big rigs don't get into accidents nearly as much as other types of vehicles do. Only 2.4 percent of all car accidents involve semi-trucks. Because large trucks are driven by skilled professionals and usually stick to highways, the risk of an accident is greatly reduced.

If you plan to do any holiday travel or highway travel anytime of year, you will find yourself on the highway with a big rig. Here are a few tips for driving safely around big trucks, so you can share the road with them safely.

*Stay out of their blind spot. If you can't see the truck's mirrors, the truck can't see you.

*Give the truck enough stopping distance. It takes 100 yards for a semi to go from 55 mph to a complete stop. That's as long as a football field, and this distance could nearly double on icy or wet roads.

*Give the truck plenty of room when you pass it. You should be able to see its headlights in your rearview mirror by the time you return to its lane.

*Bear in mind that trucks need extra space in order to turn. Avoid passing a truck that's turning, and if possible keep clear of it in the intersection until the turn is completed.

*At an intersection, if you are waiting at a red light and a truck approaches, you should always wait to see that the truck has stopped before proceeding at the green light.

*Try not to drive beside a big truck for longer than necessary. If their tire blows out, you can be hit with the rubber pieces. The truck may also lose control and veer into your lane.

*Remember that semi-trucks are more likely to be buffeted about by the wind. If you're driving in windy conditions, take care to give the truck extra space, especially when passing.

*When driving up a hill, trucks will slow down; they will drive faster on the way down, thanks to gravity. Don't pass a truck at the top of a hill, as the driver may not be able to control its speed on the way back down.

*Following behind a truck can actually be the safest place on the highway, as long as you give yourself plenty of stopping distance. NEVER tailgate a truck. They can't see you back there.

*Final tip: If you are following a truck, always make sure you are far enough back to see the side mirrors. You may see the driver, but if he can't see you and has to hit the brakes hard, you will have nowhere to go.

Share the roads safely, and your new driver will start to be more aware over time.


Dear Car Fix: Please recommend the best PCM scanner for a home mechanic. My vehicle is a 2001 Ford Taurus SES with a 3.0L V6 single overhead cam engine.

-- G.A., Buffalo

Dear G.A.: For the readers, a powertrain control module (PCM) serves as the central computer for a vehicle's diagnostic system. The PCM analyzes sensor readings and engine functions. As soon as a component within the engine or fueling system malfunctions, the PCM issues a code and labels the problem either "trouble" or "pending." If the PCM were to cease working properly, your vehicle's diagnostic system would become untrustworthy. Testing this valuable device can be accomplished in a few minutes by using a simple and reasonably priced electronic tool.

Actron makes a pocket scan tool that reads and displays MIL (malfunction indicator light) status and I/M monitors. It's compatible with ALL 1996 and newer vehicles (OBD-II, meaning on board diagnostics second generation). The tool will automatically read diagnostic trouble codes when connected to the outlet under your dash. These tools can cost as little as $80 and are worth the investment. A friend of mine was told by a dealer it would be $200 to check their "check engine light." I was shocked, as many auto parts stores won't charge at all.

You can even purchase one with live data. Having this tool in your arsenal will allow you to tell a professional technician what's wrong, as it has live real-time data in this professional grade. The live data allows you to view the vehicle sensor, switch and relay inputs in real time, while the engine is running. What this really means is that you can pinpoint problem components for faster diagnosis. The tool costs around $100.