Arrow awareness is a crucial two part sense you should develop in order to master your trailer’s movement.
The first key to mastering your trailer’s movement is making sure that you are “seeing” your trailer correctly. Arrow Awareness is the term I use to explain how students must visualize their trailer at all times.
I have come to realize that experienced drivers see details all around them that new drivers are oblivious to. By having them focus on these details and expanding their awareness I have witnessed major improvements in their backing skills.
I have the luxury of training in a day-cab which offers me a much better view of the surroundings via the back window. Sometimes, I stand on the ground outside of the vehicle and communicate with them through the open window.
I pay attention to as many details as I can. Especially their eyes, and hands.
I try to see where they are focusing their attention and how they are reacting.
Are their hands making confident, patient moves with the steering wheel? Or, are they uncertain and overactive?
Often I see a student looking confused, or making a steering wheel turn in the opposite direction of what was needed at the time. This tells me that they have a misunderstanding about something. Sometimes I will ask them to stop, set the brake, take a breath, and explain to me exactly what they were thinking about and focusing on. This way I can help identify any misconceptions and get them to see what they need to see.
It typically goes something like this—
Me: “That last big steering wheel turn you made..tell me what you were focusing on and what you were thinking.”
Them: “Well, I need to move the back of my trailer to the left, so I turned the wheel to the right.”
Me: “Do you see where your trailer is pointing right now?”
At this point, some look at me confused, check both mirrors and turn their heads rearward.
Me: “If there was a line starting at the front of this trailer and extending down the entire length and beyond, where would it be pointing?”
Them: “Over there.”
Me: “Yes. And we don’t want the trailer to go over there. We want it to go over here. So, we have to point it where we want it to go.”
Arrow Awareness is simply being aware of where your trailer is pointing at all times.
The trailer rolls in the direction it is currently pointing.
I have found that many of the students who struggle the most with backing are not seeing the whole trailer. They are only focusing on the back end. You need to see the whole trailer. There is not enough information at the back end of the trailer. You must expand your field of vision to include the entire length of the trailer.
I suggest you visualize the entire trailer like a rearward facing arrow. You should be visualizing a line extending down the entire length of your trailer from front to back. Aiming it at your target. Much like a Marksman looks down the barrel of a rifle.
Arrow Awareness has a second element — the Pivot Point.
The pivot point is the spot the arrow rotates around as it changes direction. In order to have complete control of your trailer, you must have a clear understanding of how it moves.
Once you know where the pivot point is, and how to change the direction of the arrow, you can make the trailer go wherever you want it to.
When I ask students if they know where the trailer’s pivot point is, most get it wrong. They commonly guess the kingpin.
The kingpin is not the trailer’s pivot point. It is the tractor’s pivot point.
I have found that the following images can be very helpful.
My favorite analogy is a plastic arrow secured to a piece of cardboard. Like those found in many board games. Here is an example of a popular spinning arrow below.
Here is a plastic arrow with a small hole in the center of it. It is secured to a piece of cardboard by a small pin. You can give the arrow a flick with your finger at either end and it will spin freely around its central pivot point.
Because the pivot point is in the center, you can see that pushing the arrow at one end results in the same amount of distance traveled by the opposite end.
I want you to imagine your entire trailer as this rearward facing arrow.
With one major exception— The pivot point around which the arrow rotates is in a different location. The following image shows the same arrow with the pivot point moved to the rear.
This arrow, with the pivot point at the rear, would spin a little different if you gave it a flick with your finger. This is a close representation of how your trailer moves. It is important that you have a clear understanding of this. Knowing where the pivot point is located means that you know how/where the arrow rotates. That is a critical element to mastery.
The pivot point of the arrow is where it connects with the board.
The pivot point of your trailer is where it connects with the ground, at the tandems.
It always rotates around the center of the tandems. As you slide the tandems, forward or backward, you also move the pivot point.
In the previous diagram, the location of the white dot that represents the pivot point would change when you slid your tandems. With the tandems all the way back, the white dot would be more towards the point of the arrow. With the tandems slid all the way forward the white dot would be further down the shaft and more of the arrowhead would “overhang” on the other side of the dot. This is why we have to be careful of trailer “swing” when the tandems are in the maximum forward position.
So, we have two ways in which the trailer moves. The previous diagram gives us a good idea of the rotational movement of the trailer around the tandems. The arrow in the diagram represents a piece of plastic that is pinned to a piece of cardboard. But let’s imagine now that the arrow is free from the cardboard. The dot still represents the pivot point, but there is no pin. Instead, a set of wheels lie beneath that spot. Just like the tandems on your trailer. Now, the arrow can roll lengthwise.
This is Arrow Awareness. I recommend that you study the following image and try to imagine yourself pointing and rolling this arrow.
The important thing to note is that, like your trailer, the arrow only rolls in the direction the arrow is pointing.
And your trailer only moves in the direction it is pointing. It cannot move any other way. The trailer’s wheels are fixed and do not turn side to side.
I find that some students very often have a different idea in their head.
They believe that somehow they can make the back of the trailer move to the left or right by turning the steering wheel in the opposite direction.
There is no direct connection between your steering wheel and those tandems whatsoever.
At some point, someone may have told them that backing up a tractor and trailer is just like backing up a box truck, or a car, only opposite. I believe that this is the worst advice anyone can ever be given when learning to drive a tractor and trailer. I’ve had many students who have been rendered almost useless by this misinformation. They are frustrated and unable to figure out what they are doing wrong. Telling them once almost never seems to be enough. It amazes me how tightly they cling to this bad information and resist a new idea.
The problem with this idea is that it seems to work. At least part of the time—
For instance, when the tractor and trailer are close to being in-line with each other. But, when the angle between the tractor and trailer becomes greater than 45 degrees that idea no longer works. It is just plain bad advice.
I know it’s nice to have a simple thought to fall back on when you are learning something new and seemingly complex. I can appreciate how hard it must be to let go of whatever sense of ease or security that simple thought afforded you. You must let it go and adopt a new way of looking at it. It would be better to think of your trailer as a wheelbarrow. You have to point a wheelbarrow where you want it to go. It’s the same with your trailer. Point it and push it.
Tires first. Sides second.
One of the things I try to drill into my student’s heads is the idea of tires first, sides second. That means the trailer tires have to be on the correct path before you try to square up the sides of the trailer and make them parallel to the yellow lines.
You can see from the previous diagram that it would be useless to try and move the arrow around its pivot point until the pivot point has reached the point it needs to be. In this case, evenly spaced between the yellow lines. Get the tires where they need to be, and then square up the trailer. Your tires need to be on the correct path. Your trailer behaves much like a long wheelbarrow. Point it in the direction you need the tires to roll, then push it around its pivot point and make the sides parallel with the yellow lines.
One of my first students, Robert, was very competent in every area except backing. He had been out with a few different trainers but was still struggling with Backing.
Late in the afternoon of our third day together, we were doing a “swap”, or a “drop and hook” at a customer location. We had the whole parking lot to ourselves. It was a good place to get some practice in.
He was behind the wheel; I watched closely from the passenger seat. After completing his set up, he started back into the hole.
I was paying attention to details such as his demeanor, the direction of his focus, as well as his hands on the wheel.
I know which way the steering wheel should be turned, and when. He is looking out his window towards the rear of the trailer. I see him hesitate, do a little stutter move with the steering wheel, as if he was unsure of himself. He stops rolling backward and actually turns and looks at the steering wheel as if he is trying to remember which way he is supposed to turn it. Then he makes a big turn in the exact opposite direction that was needed and continues backward.
I immediately stop him and have him set the brakes. It was obvious to me he was focused on the steering wheel and trying to remember which direction he needed to turn it. This is a big red flag for me.
I ask him to tell me exactly what he was thinking about at the moment he made the big turn to the right.
He confirmed what I had suspected, that he was trying to move the back end of the trailer over to one side by turning the steering wheel in the opposite direction.
“No!” I said. “You have to stop thinking about the steering wheel and trying to remember left-right, right-left… Look out your window at the trailer. Imagine a big red arrow painted down the entire side of that trailer pointing to the rear.”
He sticks his head out the window and looks back and up and scans the trailer from the front to the back with his eyes.
“Now, what you need to be focused on, and asking yourself at all times is, ‘where is that arrow pointing?’. And, ‘where does it need to be pointing?’.”
“I see where it’s pointing.” He said.
“Okay, remember how I told you we change the direction of the arrow?”
He looks at me, and I can tell he’s unsure. So, I continue. “We change the direction of the arrow at THIS end of the trailer.” I motion with both of my hands with a pushing motion out the back window of the tractor. “Our connection to the trailer is here at the front end. At the kingpin… You must learn to change the direction of the arrow to get the wheels to roll where you need them to, by instinctively backing against the kingpin in the direction needed. You need more focus on THIS end of the trailer. Ask yourself, ‘where do I need to push this end of the trailer to get the arrow pointing where I need it to point?’. Then just do it instinctively.
I know that sounds much easier said than done. But as I like to say, “It’s easier done when said.” Which means the first step to doing it, is telling yourself that you’re going to do it.
If you were in your car on an empty parking lot, and I told you to back into a big orange rubber cone and hit it at a specific direction, you could do it without thinking about the steering wheel. Your tractor moves the same as your car.”
He nodded his head and was ready to give it another try. He released the brakes, turned his head back towards the trailer and started back again.
And then the “light bulb” moment…
After no more than ten seconds he hit the brakes abruptly and came to a dead stop. And, I’ll never forget this…he turned his head forward and just gazed out the front windshield with his mouth open. This was the moment he finally got it. He didn’t say anything for a few seconds, just gazed off into the distance with his mouth open. Then he slowly started to nod his head as his open mouth turned into a smile, and he said, “I see what you are saying now.” He slowly turned to look at me and said it again, still nodding, “I see what you’re saying now.” His smile was bigger. He turned his attention back toward the trailer and started back again. Saying it one more time for good measure, “I see what you’re saying now.”
“Good!”, I told him. “Do it! Make that trailer your Bitch!”
And he did just that. He got it into the hole without thinking about the steering wheel. When he set the brakes I gave him a ‘high-five’.
He was as happy as I’d ever seen him.
From that point forward he was a completely different driver. He still needed to practice the timing, but he was noticeably different from that moment on.
It became fun for me at that point. To see his reaction to “the light bulb” going off in his head and finally “getting it”. I realized that I wanted to help other people experience that.
The first step is to see the tractor and trailer as two distinct separate units.
Make a conscious effort to develop a sense for where each unit is pointing at all times. I call this Arrow Awareness.
You must know where the pivot point is for each unit. The pivot point of the trailer is at the center of the tandems. Likewise, the pivot point of the tractor is also at the center of the rear tires. In the following diagram, the pivot points are represented by the dashed circles. These are the points which the arrows rotate around. The points where they contact the ground.
Seeing the tractor and the trailer as two separate units instead of one may sound twice as complicated to some. I realize that. My goal is to only make it as complicated as it needs to be. The idea that the tractor and the trailer are one unit, and that you can control the back tandems directly with a move of the steering wheel is faulty thinking. You will never be able to successfully maneuver the trailer with that thinking. Those thoughts must be abandoned if you want to achieve any sort of set up and backing mastery.
Arrow Awareness has as much to do with your tractor’s trajectory as it does your trailer.
It is my opinion based on my experience, that the simplest, most effective way to visualize the rearward movement of the tractor and trailer is that they are two separate arrows connected at the kingpin. You change the direction of the smaller arrow, the tractor, in such a manner that it changes the direction of the larger arrow, the trailer.
In my next lesson, I will focus on the second key to mastering your trailer’s movement. How to change the direction of the arrow using Kingpin pressure, or pushing the front corners.
Arrow awareness is a crucial two part sense you should develop in order to master your trailer’s movement.
The first key to mastering your trailer’s movement is making sure that you are “seeing” your trailer correctly.
Arrow Awareness is about developing a sense for where your trailer is pointing at all times.
I suggest you visualize the entire trailer as a rearward facing arrow. You should be visualizing a line extending down the entire length of your trailer from front to back. Aiming it at your target. Much like a Marksman looks down the barrel of a rifle.
Secondly, the pivot point is the spot the arrow rotates around as it changes direction. In order to have complete control of your trailer, you must have a clear understanding of how it moves.
Once you know where the pivot point is, and how to change the direction of the arrow, you can make the trailer go wherever you want it to. The pivot point of your trailer is where it connects with the ground. At the tandems.
Swap or Drop and Hook— when you take an empty trailer to a customer and swap it for a full trailer. You drop off the empty and hook up to the full one.
Pivot point— the point around which the arrow/trailer rotates. The back tandems.
Arrow Awareness — being aware of where your trailer and tractor are pointing at all times.
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