Rolf Lockwood

Rolf Lockwood

Ever seen the damage a set of flying duals can do to a four-wheeler? It’s devastating. And sometimes fatal.

Such was the case recently in my neck of the woods when a southbound B-train hauling lumber parted company with a pair of wheels and tires on its rear trailer. They bounded across eight lanes of a busy highway and landed at speed on the front roof and windshield of a northbound SUV – a big one, the kind you feel safe in.

The 69-year-old driver, who probably never knew what hit him, was airlifted to the hospital after rescue workers cut him out of the wreck, but he died soon after. The truck driver was oblivious to the drama and continued on his way until police caught up to him a few miles down the road.

Not quite two months earlier a woman died in much the same way, and two months prior to that a woman pedestrian was struck and killed in the city by a wheel that came flying off a dump truck. Ironically, she was a marathon runner who had survived the Boston terrorist bombing.

All these tragedies happened in and around Toronto, Ontario, but of course they go on all over the place, and they do seem to be on the rise after a lull of a few years. Reported wheel separations in Ontario increased dramatically from just 47 in 2010 to 148 in 2014. Finding reliable figures for other provinces and states is tough, but I’ll guess that they’re similar.

The thing is, Ontario has what are probably the most draconian laws on the continent when it comes to commercial-vehicle wheel-offs. Even if first-rate truck maintenance can be proven, due diligence is not a defense. In fact, there is no defense under Ontario law – absolute liability is rendered each and every time a truck loses its wheel. Guilt is automatic. And the fine, also automatic, can be up to $50,000 for the fleet involved.

There’s also a course in proper maintenance that every tire/wheel tech must take. It’s mandatory by law.

Yet we still have wheel-offs. 

Now, our industry’s overall safety record is actually pretty good and getting better, but such incidents that involve civilian fatalities always garner an awful lot of attention. As they should.

But what bugs me is that the mainstream press, and even some of the less well-informed enforcement folk, always look to the driver first to find fault. Did he do his pre-trip? How could he possibly miss that bad wheel?

Well, gimme a break. Yes, a driver absolutely must do his inspections, the more the merrier. And yes, on the odd occasion he might be able to see something amiss. But I’d guess that maybe seven or eight times out of 10 the problem is going to be invisible to him, no matter how much vigilance he applies.

There are low-cost telltale gizmos that you can attach to wheels and help drivers see trouble before it becomes catastrophe, but the cure starts in the shop.

RP 656 in the Recommended Practices Manual published by the Technology & Maintenance Council offers these instructive words:

“Most fastener problems can be avoided by using a few simple instruments... such as a wire brush, an oil dropper, and a calibrated torque wrench.”

Enough said.