Vital seconds

Nails and other debris should be pulled out when found to avoid further damage and possible blowouts.

Blowouts are among a truck driver’s worst nightmares. They typically happen without warning. A steer-tire blowout at 65 miles per hour can, in a heartbeat, wrench control of a 40-ton truck away from the driver. Then all bets are off, and whether the truck stops safely or wreaks mayhem and destruction depends on the driver’s instinctive reactions within the first moments.

“It happens suddenly,” says Maury Tiehen, CDL Department Chair at San Juan College in Farmington, N.M. “It certainly affects your control of the vehicle, and if you don’t do the right thing, you’re at a very real risk of catastrophic collision, rolling it or at least taking it off the road.”

You’ll have less than two seconds to conduct the first four of the following five steps. The seconds might come while you’re reaching for a drink, jawing on the CB or admiring a passing car’s upholstery. If you’re not alert, steer-tire blowouts are unforgiving.

  1. Keep your head
    “Don’t react wildly,” says Columbia, S.C.-based Marshall McKoy, company driver for CC Transportation. “Keep a cool, calm head.”

    You’re the trained professional and the only one who can safely handle the emergency. Everybody nearby needs your panic-free response: “shaken, not stirred,” as 007 says. Don’t let them down.

  2. Grip the wheel
    “You want to get a good, firm grip on the steering wheel,” McKoy says. “Once you feel that tire go, it has to be like second nature. You’re going to take a good hold of the wheel.”

    Keep hands and arms out of the steering wheel at all times because they might break when the wheel wrenches from a blowout.

  3. Stay off the brakes
    Your instinct may be to slam on the brakes, but that’s the opposite of what you should do.

    “That’s the first thing everybody does,” says Glenwood, Md.-based owner-operator Edward Grimes.

    “When you’re driving down the road, the primary force on the truck is its forward force,” Tiehen says. “When you have a blowout, you’ve suddenly added a substantial amount of sideways force due to the drag on the blowout side of the truck.”

    If a steer tire blows, part of the truck suddenly wants to slow down and turn. Braking escalates the argument to all-out war.

  4. Throttle up
    Just taking your foot off the throttle can spell doom.

    “If you take your foot off the accelerator, you decrease that forward force and allow the sideways forces to take over,” Tiehen says.

    Hence the fourth step: mash on it, driver.

    “You step on the accelerator to compensate for the increased sideways forces,” Tiehen says. “You’ll use your steering wheel for that, too.”

    Mashing the accelerator will minimize weight on the blown tire, thereby minimizing its dragging affect.

    “If a steer tire blows, I was taught to hit the fuel until you gain control of the truck,” McKoy says. “Don’t hit the brakes.”

  5. Get off the road
    “Once you have control, then you slowly back off the accelerator and start easing toward the side of the road,” Tiehen says.

    Nearby motorists will likely be panicking and can be hazards themselves. After regaining control of the truck, communicate your intentions with four-way and/or directional flashers: seeing your truck under control and moving to the side, motorists can evade it more safely.

    “Check all your mirrors,” McKoy says. “You have to keep your eyes on the traffic around you to make sure you don’t cause more damage.”

    Look ahead for a safe place to stop. “Get over to the shoulder as quickly and safely as possible,” McKoy says. “That’s when you want to keep that good, firm grip on the wheel. You’ll feel the truck start to move sporadically about. You have to hold it in your lane.”

    Also, keep your steering smooth and gentle.

    “Certain people, like a new driver, might not know what to do, and they might start jerking at the steering wheel,” McKoy says. “You have to ease it over: turn in little steps, a little bit at a time.”

    While experts differ on brake use at this point, they all agree: if you use the brakes at all, keep the pressure very light and constant. One accidental stab will eliminate your hard-won control of the truck.

    One school of thought says that once you’re on the shoulder you should coast to a stop without any brakes. This is the method taught in most driver-training programs, and it’s in most states’ CDL manuals.

    “Don’t apply any braking pressure unless you’re about to run into something,” Tiehen says.
    Another school suggests limited brake use.

    “I don’t think anybody could get it to stop without using the brakes,” Grimes says. “But if you use the brakes, use them gently.”

    Stop the truck, take a breath, and call for help or put on a spare.

The other blowouts
Drive- and trailer-tire blowouts are generally not nearly so dangerous and a lot more common. Neither Grimes nor McKoy has ever had a steer-tire blowout, but “I’ve had blowouts on the drive axles and trailer tandems,” Grimes says. “They might be from rocks getting stuck between the two tires.”

If a drive or trailer tire blows, the driver can either pull off and call for help, put a spare on, or keep going to a repair shop

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