#308 – Keeping Rubber on the Road

Big rig drivers have difficult, dangerous jobs, and they deserve everyone’s respect. But the rigs themselves can pose hazards for riders.

Keeping rubber on the road

I’m riding south toward Flathead Lake on US 93, just out of Kalispell, Montana, and following a flatbed truck with a stock car on the back. As I get closer, I can see the car’s fibreglass hood flapping in the wind, and I decide to hold back. Just as well: the wind catches the hood, ripping it off and flinging it into the air. It starts to float toward me in a series of erratic pendulum swings, like a giant falling leaf.
I decide to keep rolling—rather be able to take evasive action than get nailed at the side of the road—and I sprint past the hood as it clatters to the ground a handful of yards away. Adrenalin pumping, I crank the throttle and pull level with the truck cab, screaming at the driver from inside my helmet, pointing to the back of his truck. He glances at me out of the window then turns away, oblivious to the mayhem he could have created.
Motorcycling is dangerous—it says so right on the tin. And on the waiver form every time you sign up for a ride or go to the track. But it could be a lot safer if it wasn’t for the hazards thrown at us on the street. A rider I know—we’ll call him Chris, because that’s his name—was cruising a highway in southern Alberta behind a truck carrying a forklift. One of the forks from the lift tumbled out of the back of the truck and bounced into Chris’s left leg, severing it below the knee. A prosthesis keeps him riding—but he’s not the first rider I know to have been hit by a piece of iron falling off a truck, or by flying tire fragments.
US Highway Six in Utah rises to around 2,500 metres at Soldier Summit. As I’m riding northwest from Price, the highway winds into the Wasatch Mountains and the Coconino National Forest, and I can’t help noticing the amount of truck tire debris shed by the never-ending stream of 18-wheelers that plough over the summit toward Salt Lake City. I quickly learn to keep a healthy distance from the trucks in front. But why do truck tires disintegrate when auto tires rarely seem to?
A team from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute was hired by the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to find out. They examined the 39,000 kg of tire debris collected from 314 km of interstate by Department of Transportation workers. Of the fragments, more than two-thirds came from re-treaded tires. So are retreads the problem?
The trucking industry says no. Their position is that road hazards cause tire damage regardless of tire construction. Their own studies conclude that, of discarded tire casings, the ratio of new tires to retreads is much closer to parity. But it isn’t discarded casings that present a hazard for motorcyclists: it’s the tire fragments. You’d have to conclude that the trucking industry is quite okay with the present situation, and obviously isn’t planning to address it any time soon.
This should come as no surprise, but in BC’s Lower Mainland, it rains a lot. And when it does, riding the major highways around Vancouver is like being doused with a fire hose. It’s not so much the rain, it’s tire spray; and trucks are the worst culprits. Passing an 18-wheeler is as much an act of faith as it is of navigation. And it doesn’t have to be that way. In Europe (yes, I know…) most trucks not only have fenders, but anti-spray skirts envelop the wheels. So why don’t we do it in Canada? Of course, the trucking industry isn’t likely to want to spend the extra dollars—until they find out, perhaps, that correctly designed anti-spray skirts can improve truck aerodynamics, reducing fuel consumption as much as 3.5 per cent.
On the subject of truck wheels, it was in December 2011 in Toronto that two people were killed in two weeks from crashes caused by stray transport truck wheels, prompting calls for tighter regulation. In the US, the NHTSA’s Office of Defect Investigation reports that around 1,000 crashes a year are caused by stray truck wheels.
And if you’ve ever ridden the back roads of BC, you’ll know about log trucks. While most truck drivers are professional and responsible, hauling logs seems to generate a maverick attitude and a manic focus on speed. I’ve experienced foolhardy passing, aggressive tailgating and a total disregard for other road users. In October 2013, a logging truck overturned while negotiating a bend on BC’s highway 99 near Whistler, spilling its load on to the road, killing 65-year-old BMW rider Hugh Roberts. It was the second time a logging truck had overturned that month on the same road, prompting a coroner’s inquest and calls from the union representing truck drivers for a review of regulations. At present, logging truck drivers are paid by weight delivered. Hmm…
Most trucks run on diesel fuel. And when it’s contained in a fuel tank, that’s fine. But diesel spills can be a serious safety hazard for motorcyclists. Diesel on tarmac is as slippery as a live salmon coated in baby oil. In the UK, where both diesel powered vehicles and motorcycles are far more numerous, diesel spill slides are some of the most common motorcycle accidents. The bottom line—if you see a wet patch on the road, assume it’s diesel, even if it turns out to be water.
Don’t get me wrong. Most truck drivers are conscientious, well-trained professionals who take safety very seriously; and I have enormous respect for the arduous and demanding job they do—mostly very well. Many truckers are also bikers—the two seem to go together. But motorcyclists are among the most vulnerable road users, and trucks potentially the most dangerous, often for reasons beyond the driver’s control. Let’s help by giving them plenty of room—and lots of respect!

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