On the Road

Where have all the grab handles gone?

February 1, 2013

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What do you think the aerodynamic penalty would be from a grab handle on the side of a truck that would help a driver climb up to a place he or she could safely clean the windshield? 0.0003%, maybe?

Trucks are pretty slippery these days -- in more ways than one. We often speak of slippery surfaces when extolling the virtues of modern aerodynamics. But if you have ever tried swinging a leg from the top step over to the top of the tire, dodging the mirror and shifting your weight at just the right moment, you'll grasp the other dimension of the word slippery.

The truth is, when a wet rubber boot meets a wet rubber tire, the coefficient of friction is pretty low. Certainly less than some health and safety standards would deem appropriate in any workplace that involved wet floors. How is it then, after so many years, that truckers don't have safe and convenient access to the upper reaches of the engine compartment where they must stand to effectively clean their windshields, or to change a wiper or a marker lamp?

It wasn't so bad in previous years when stepping from the top of a battery box to the tire didn't involve swinging around a huge, plastic, slippery aerodynamic mirror. Heck, the old mirror mounts made pretty good grab handles in their own way.

There's also the chassis fairing to deal with. The cab steps are integrated into the fairing, and placed -- not surprisingly -- under and slightly to the rear of the door opening, so it's a real stretch to just reach the tire. The fairing is usually wider and taller than the tire, so it's a perfect obstacle to the only landing spot under the hood, which is the tire itself.

Climbing on the wheel nuts isn't any safer. They protrude maybe two inches from the face of the wheel, and they don't make very secure footholds. Besides, there's nothing above the wheel to hold onto anymore. There once were metal rods securing the radiator to the cab. They worked, if you were tall enough to reach them, but they're gone too.

To be fair, and realistic, climbing around a big chrome air cleaner to gain a perch on the tire to clean the windshield wasn't much safer. Often, it was easier to slip behind the wheel and climb up on the frame rails. There's was more room around the wheels on some of those trucks, but wet (or oily) frame rails aren't any safer to stand on than wet tires.

None of the trucks I've driven recently -- like, in the last five years -- had any grab handles on the outside of the truck. Even the handles that once existed at the back of the cab or sleeper to help drivers climb onto the rear deck to connect the gladhands to the trailer have disappeared.

One truck I drove recently had two nice handles rigged on the inside of the rear cab fairings. The problem is you can't reach them from any natural position. You can reach across your chest with your right arm to grab the handle -- which is on the left side of your body -- or reach around back of the fairing to grab the handle with an unnatural bend of the left wrist. I'd say if a driver slipped while holding that handle with his or her left hand, he or she would have a broken wrist on top of all their other problems.

So how about it, OEMs; how about a few solid handholds to help drivers scale the sides of their trucks to clean their windows? I don't know if the coefficient of drag on such a handle is actually 0.0003%, but it couldn't be much more. Whatever it is, it's not enough to prevent you from devising some safer way than leaping onto a tire to climb high enough to perform a necessary safety function.

Just try walking around a diesel island when the ground is wet. It's slippery enough on flat ground with all that spilled fuel around. That stuff travels on your shoes up to the frame rails and the tires and the wheel nuts. I'm surprised more drivers haven't tumbled off their trucks. Or maybe we just don't hear about them.


  1. 1. David deWindt [ February 01, 2013 @ 04:14PM ]

    After drivering a Volvo for 3 years, and useing my left hand to clean my right door windows, I watched an older driver get his first Volvo and clean his windows. I've been driving trucks 35 years, he maybe longer. I learned somethig new when he unlatched the door so he could use it for a grab handle while standing on the steps.

  2. 2. JustinB [ February 03, 2013 @ 06:02AM ]

    That would be where door hinges, hinge piens and door assemblies wear and break.... Good thing the Volvo is still steel. Maybe a ropes course or rock climbing could be come part of the physical certification. On Belay!!

  3. 3. Paul Bauman [ February 03, 2013 @ 10:24PM ]

    Come on now Jim...they do make squeegees with long handles now so your feet never have to leave the ground to clean all your windows.

  4. 4. Bernie Betke [ February 04, 2013 @ 07:36AM ]

    You will not see grab handles for access to the tope of the engine compartment installed by truck manufacturers. In order to provide a safe system they need to have three points of contact at all times - one hand and two feet, or two hands and one foot - on safe (not slippery) surfaces with safe step heights, and there's just no practical way to do it on today's vehicles. Manufacturers will not build systems which are inherantly unsafe due to liabilities; rather than have that exposure they will tell you to use a long squeegee to clean the windshield and a platform of some sort to access other items. This ignores reality, but it doesn't expose them to liability.

    On the other hand, at least some manufacturers offer optional and practical back of cab grab handle systems as long as the chassis configuration allows that same three-point stance.

  5. 5. Eddy P [ February 13, 2013 @ 06:51AM ]

    It's not aerodynamics, it's cost reduction. They remove the handles, but don't reduce the price of the truck. Not saying it's a dastardly way to make a buck, just saying that companies have to remain profitable and the first things that generally change are "what can we remove".

  6. 6. TheoWalcot [ February 19, 2013 @ 08:18PM ]

    Very informative post. Thanks for taking the time to share your view with us.


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Author Bio

Jim Park

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Equipment Editor

Truck journalist 13 years, commercial driver 20 years. Joined us in 2007. Specializes in technical/equipment material (including Tire Report), brings real-world perspective to test drives.


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