Do You Know How To Convoy?

Repost for the evening/weekend OPPO.

I just returned from a long road trip and will probably head out again this weekend. Why do all these people on the highways not know common courtesy? Its bad enough that there are so many "pedestrians" (those highway drivers that can barely stay in their own lane, let alone get out of the way of faster traffic). Every now and then someone would fall in behind me or me behind someone else and their unpredictable nature would scare me. Even those drivers who become part of a larger group plowing through traffic have no idea what they' doing.

I am by no mean an expert, but I've come to the realization that driving in a convoy is becoming a lost art. I convoy a lot; be it my car club,

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Hot Rod Power Tour,

or just impromptu highway driving.

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Keep in mind, a convoy like any group activity is like a chain and is only as strong as its weakest link. My car club always starts the trips with a drivers meeting that goes over the rules and guidelines which is good, but not very comprehensive. My clique in the Hot Rod Power tour had no idea when we started the tour, so I took it upon myself to train them as we went along (I actually handed out certificates at the end of the tour for those completing and utilizing the techniques successfully). So I decided why not write it down and get input from others on the many aspects of driving in a convoy.

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Needless to say, convoy driving is different depending on the situation and conditions. A long convoy (30+ cars) on a local cruise is best with a police escort – county sheriffs for short trips and state troopers for in-state trips, don't even bother if you're going cross-country. The rules are also different for a small convoy versus a large one; or if in town vice back roads vice interstate highway. The biggest issue with occasional convoy drivers is they tend to forget to adapt when these conditions change. Its always disheartening when you reach your destination and have lost a quarter of the group because someone at the tail of the group didn't adapt. Group size also matters. For seasoned convoy drivers a small group can be as many as 15 cars, but the less experienced must reduce this number to about 8. A small group can travel much faster than a large one. These rules can apply to 2 cars or 200+.

There are probably many ways to address this topic, but I find to be thorough I must first address the group dynamic and then describe the individual roles of the participants.

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One drivers meeting a while ago gave me a very clear understanding of this group dynamic, it was explained that a convoy is like a whip: The first two cars are like the handle – they control the direction, speed and flow; but like a whip the front speed may vary 10% while the end must vary 50% and the speed is much faster. So the further back you are, at times the more your speed will have to be than those up front just to keep up. If it annoys you to speed up, slow down, speed up, slow down, rinse, repeat; then you might want to situate yourself closer to the front. I tend to volunteer to bring up the rear because my car is loud with no cats and few want to be behind me... and I enjoy the challenge.

Not that I condone speeding, but a small group can travel at any speed and this is the next thing that must be discussed in the drivers meeting. If someone in the convoy isn't willing to stay with the group above a certain speed, they need to speak up or step out. If the group wants to keep them, then that car needs to be car 3 and absolutely never near the end! The most aggravating convoy is one where someone in the group refuses to keep up and forces the rest of the group to compensate for them or worse yet, some are willing to compensate while others are not and everybody ends up pissed.

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Any size group can benefit from communications. Without radios... turn signals and hand signals can help, but radios are best. A radio in the lead car and one in the last car is the minimum, especially when negotiating in town traffic (more is always better???). Like any communication, too much mindless chatter can impede useful info, but the bigger the group the more radios the better. My car club usually travels in groups of 6-15 and half the cars will have radios. With 14 cars in our group on the Power Tour, we made do with 4 radios and hand signals. Hand signals vary by group, but the most important are slow down, pass me on the left, pass me on the right, and a distress call. I've also seen signals for radar warning, pull over, tighten up the group, gas stop time, and others. About radios: FRS is nice for small groups (larger groups will have to relay messages from one end to the other); CB is better, but antiquated and rare; Ham is better, but operators are few and far between; cell phones can work, but are not suited for mass communication or lengthy trips; texts can be used, but for safety should go to the co-driver/navigator. The cheapest and most used method is FRS – decide on the channel at the drivers meeting, whose gonna relay messages, and go.

Courtesy and safety guidelines need also be discussed in the drivers meeting. Some groups are a little wilder than others and the extremes need discussing. If two guys want to jump out and race, they need to signal their intent and if that's a possibility the rest of the group must be vigilant to watch both in front and behind them for these type shenanigans. The group should always strive to be courteous to the other drivers sharing the roads. That doesn't mean ignoring the idiots out there (more on this later). Signaling your intents, not tailgating, using aggressive driving sparingly, etc. are courtesies we all expect. Still, just because you're in a convoy doesn't mean you relax your personal safety measures. On the contrary, you must increase your awareness to include the safety of those in front and behind you. The 6-piston 390mm brakes on your ZR1 Corvette will keep you from running into the Viper ahead of you, but the 80's Cadillac Fleetwood behind you is going to crush you if you stop too quickly.

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Lastly, no matter where you are in the group: know where you are, where you're going, and the preferred route. Murphy's Law comes to mind here: if it can go wrong, it will. Should you get separated, you need to get back in the group or at worse catch up to them at the destination. Knowing can also help you prepare for lane changes and turns. Knowing can keep you from doing something dumb like trying to pass when you need to exit. Knowing where you are on the trip allows you to focus on where you are in the group. Don;t be "that guy" who finally shows up at dinner after everyone else is finished. If lead is uncertain, chime in.

Now let's talk about individual roles.

LEAD has the hardest job: maintain the group speed and integrity, navigate to the destination, look far enough ahead to anticipate how the group will proceed, watch/listen for the group sequencing and spacing, assess changing conditions, and make decisions for the entire group. On an open road, lead should set his cruise control and concentrate on navigation. In highway traffic, lead slows to allow the group to get through and let the tail catch up. In the city, lead sometimes has to pull over with part of the group so the tail of the group doesn't get left at a light or stop sign (this can be tricky depending on how many made it through the light and must be accommodated). Lead sets the tone of the group: will the convoy be smooth sailing or a roller coaster, will it be slow and steady like the Orient Express or steamroll everybody like a freight train. Speaking of responsibilities, if lead gets lost – ADMIT IT EARLY! I hate following someone I know is going the wrong way. And remember when you commit to a maneuver, you've committed the entire group so signal early and signal often.

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I will admit I'm an impatient lead. Anticipating highway traffic, I will flash my lights three or four times starting long before I catch the slower car in the left lane. Once I catch him, I will give him one or two passed in the right lane, but if he doesn't move over then... its time to unleash car 2 and have the group leapfrog him. "Leapfrog" is a well-tested proven technique to get the convoy past a slower driver hogging the left lane. Essentially one of the group (I usually designate car 2 so lead can stay lead) gets in front of the left hog however he can and then he slows to open a hole for the rest of the convoy to pass this guy. This technique can easily be done with just two cars; the most I've seen use it effectively was 18 but they all knew the rules, were paying attention, and via radio comms were ready to go as soon as the hole was open. Remember the slow guy we put at car 3, this is why. 1 and 2 are busy and 3 is by default the first follower.

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Car 2 is what I call the aggressor. He is the one every bonehead pedestrian is pissed at. He's the one to brake check the left lane hog. He's the one who clears the way for the convoy. He's the one who annoys the highway pedestrians to get out of our way. In the city when we don't have a police escort, he's the one who blocks traffic at a stop sign so we can proceed as a group. Depending on the size of the group and the route thru town, two or more aggressors may be needed.

As one of the pack, your job is to pay attention and keep up!! The time to decide if you're going to keep up is before we begin. If you lag behind, you drag down everyone behind you. If you keep at it, you'll find yourself the lead of a pack of angry followers. BEWARE. At best everyone else will pass you and leave you all alone to face them whenever you happen to arrive at the destination. Again, BEWARE. For my groups, 1 car length for every 20 MPH is acceptable. Less seasoned drivers will need more. I can't stress the "pay attention" part enough – there will be times you need to close on the car in front regardless of your speed (like when approaching traffic or a leapfrog), there will be times you may need to pass him (i.e., if he's slowing the rest of the pack) or let someone pass you (this is important especially when car 2 needs to get back in place), IGNORE YOUR SPEEDOMETER (your task is to keep up with the group, your individual speed is irrelevant). If you need to drop out of the group, let someone know. When I'm lead, I take a headcount upon departure and arrival and somebody better know where and why we lost someone.

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"Tail-end Charlie," the last car in the pack. This tends to be a fluid position – no one wants to be last so it's traded often unless someone like me volunteers. It helps if the last car has a radio so he can tell lead when the group has cleared obstacles, traffic, stop lights, etc. As stated previously, this position requires a lot of speed up, slow down, cha cha cha. Its easy to get left behind if you're not paying attention. Your job does have one other aspect - notifying the group when a civilian wants to pass the group. You need to be watching way back and identify him early. When he's on your bumper is too late for an organized pass. You need to spread the word ahead that he's coming long before he catches you. This also allows lead and 2 to adjust the convoy's flow to accommodate him with the least disruption to the group. Oh, did I also mention, you need to be on the lookout for cops catching the group. The last thing you need is for a cop to clock you (the tip of the whip) and give everyone in the group a ticket at your speed.

Enough of me trying to sound like some kind of expert. Convoy driving can be a lot of fun. Be it LEAD, 2, one of the pack, or Tail-end Charlie, everybody has a job to do and the group dynamic has a lot to do with the size of the group and where you're driving. Communication is key. And different techniques are needed for different situations. Your own safety will always be priority, but you also have responsibilities for the safety and flow of the group.

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