Is Driving a Forklift Easy If You Can Drive a Car?


If you can drive a car, you might assume that you can also drive a forklift. After all, a forklift is a machine on four wheels that can be operated by a single person, usually sitting down. However, forklifts and cars are dissimilar in several important respects – and if you try to drive a forklift with only car-related knowledge, it could be disastrous.

Let’s explore the details – and explain how to operate a forklift safely.

Why Forklifts Demand to Be Taken Seriously

First, why do we need to make such a big deal about this?

The simple answer is that forklifts are incredibly dangerous. It’s easy to write off forklifts as a non-threat because they tend to be somewhat small, somewhat slow, and relatively easy to operate. The reality is forklifts are very heavy, they’re hard to operate safely, and they tend to operate in environments that are full of different hazards.

Because of this, there are dozens of deaths and thousands of injuries attributable to forklifts every year.

Respectable organizations that utilize forklifts almost always pursue formal forklift certification for their forklift operators – or at least intensive safety training and education. They recognize the importance of proper training and education for creating a safer environment, and they understand the risks of unsafe forklift operation all too well.

Key Differences Between Forklifts and Cars

If you still think you’d be able to operate a forklift safely with nothing more than experience operating a conventional motor vehicle, consider the following differences:

  •       Weight. The average forklift is around 9,000 lbs. That’s much heavier than an average truck or SUV, and yet forklifts are much smaller in terms of physical dimensions. Obviously, you won’t be lifting this weight directly, but you will feel it as you attempt to navigate the forklift around obstacles. You’ll need more time to come to a complete stop, and if you do collide with anything, you could do an incredible amount of damage.
  •       Turning. Turning in a forklift is a very different experience than turning in a car. There are several reasons for this. First, the wheels that turn are in the back, rather than the front; this is because forklifts typically have heavy loads on the front, making it hard to steer with the front wheels safely. Second, the steering and wheels aren’t as responsive as the steering and wheels you’ll find in a car. Third, the wheels can turn much further in a forklift, allowing for more precise maneuverability in tight spots. In summary, if you’re used to steering with a conventional vehicle steering wheel, the transition to a forklift will be jarring.
  •       Direction. In a typical motor vehicle, you’ll spend nearly all of your time driving forward. But forklift operators are often forced to drive backward; some situations demand this because of the forklift’s positioning and available space, while others demand it for proper load balancing.
  •       Load balance. Speaking of load balancing, carrying a heavy load instantly changes the dynamics of a forklift. Even if you feel somewhat comfortable operating a forklift in a large, open space with no load, adding a heavy load is going to increase the difficulty of safe operation by a significant margin. It’s the forklift operator’s responsibility to ensure the load is properly balanced and properly carried to avoid tipping or instability.
  •       Blind spots. Responsible motor vehicle operators are acutely aware of the importance of checking blind spots. But the blind spots in a forklift are much different – and much more frequent. If you have a big enough load on the front, you may not be able to see in front of you at all. Depending on where you’re operating, your vision may be obstructed by other fixtures and people in the vicinity.
  •       Speed and momentum. Forklifts move more slowly than conventional motor vehicles, but this doesn’t mean they’re necessarily easier to control. In fact, the extra weight makes it harder to control the momentum of the forklift and makes it harder to come to a complete stop at the right time. Additionally, many people are tempted to operate forklifts at excessive speeds that are unsafe simply because they still “feel” like a slow speed compared to highway driving.
  •       Occupational hazards. We also need to recognize that most forklifts aren’t operated in a vacuum. Unless you have the luxury of trying out a forklift in a big, empty parking lot, you’ll probably have lots of occupational hazards to deal with. Shelves, boxes, people, and various loads can get in your way and complicate your decision making. If you’re not used to these obstacles, it can be a significant complicating variable.

The Value of Proper Training

Fortunately, proper training can give you the education and skills you need to handle a forklift responsibly, even considering these weaknesses and dangers. Your experience driving a conventional motor vehicle isn’t totally worthless, and after a bit of practice, you’ll begin to become more familiar and comfortable with the forklift operation experience.

Even so, it pays to take forklifts and their respective dangers seriously. No matter how much time you have behind the wheel of a forklift or how successfully you aced your forklift certification test, it’s imperative that you identify safety as your top priority and exercise an abundance of caution.


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