High-wind hauling

Owner-operator Al Hemerson says increased pulling power to the drive wheels helps counteract a strong crosswind’s sideways push.

A 20- to 30-knot north wind blew double-digit, below-zero wind chills across an icy I-80 that sunny New Year’s Day in Wyoming. A caravan of widely spaced big trucks shambled eastward at 35 miles an hour, drivers battling gamely to keep their vehicles on the highway. But the trailers caught the wind like big sails, and I-80’s median and shoulders were littered with trucks jackknifed or otherwise stuck.

“I’m losing it, I’m losing it! I can’t keep it on the road!” The young, panicky voice on the CB radio announced the wind’s latest victim.

“We’re losing another one,” verified another driver over the CB.

The sliding 18-wheeler hit the median and was momentarily obscured by the huge snow cloud it kicked up. The air cleared; the big truck was jackknifed but upright.

The driver lamented on the radio, his voice laced with fear and despair, but experienced drivers gave good advice:

“You’re OK. Just sit for a few minutes, collect your wits and call your dispatcher.”

A bad experience, but it might’ve been easily avoided.

“If you’re in high winds, and you’re running light and the roads are slippery, you almost always have to park,” says owner-operator Al Hemerson of Humboldt, Iowa.

If you don’t park it, the wind almost certainly will. It’s cheaper, safer and takes a lot less time if you do it.

Heed the warnings
More than a few drivers don’t know how unstable their 18-wheelers get in high winds, though people try to warn them.

“Now we have a big advantage: all the high-wind signs,” Hemerson says. “They help you be more aware of your surroundings.”

Wyoming has high-wind warning signs on I-80, on either side of Elk Mountain: Laramie westbound and Rawlins eastbound. The signs are for truckers with loads less than 20,000 pounds. Arizona warns truckers of high winds on I-15, just before the Beaver Dam Mountains Wilderness Area, and other states have high-wind warnings, too.

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High winds also often have natural warning signs: look at rising smoke and flags; they can provide good estimates of the wind’s strength and direction.

“One thing I look for is a telltale gust of wind,” Hemerson says. “A lot of times they pick up dust and trash, and you can see that.”

Know the weather
Avoiding dangerous high-wind situations starts before driving the day’s first inch.
Trip planning includes knowing weather conditions not only where you are now but also where you’re going and where you’ll be at the end of the day. Moreover, weather might be fine at your destination, but that can change by the time you get there.

“You have to be aware of what you’re driving into,” Hemerson says.

When weather is a factor, most truckstops have televisions tuned to weather broadcasts: pay close attention to wind speeds. Drivers who’ve been where you’re going might be the best sources of weather information. They know what to look for. In a pinch, even a newspaper’s weather map is better than nothing.

Also, know how natural events create wind. For example, air at high altitudes is usually cooler and heavier. Chinook winds occur when huge masses of air push over mountains and race back down the other side. Katabatic winds occur when high-pressure systems over high-altitude areas send huge air masses racing into low-pressure systems at low altitudes. Thunderstorms have strong downdrafts of cold air that hit the ground, spread and sometimes pack a surprising punch.

Understand your load
Know your load’s weight and center of gravity. A light load – less than 20,000 pounds, according to the state of Wyoming – is an obvious danger, but a heavier load with a high center of gravity might be worse. If the wind takes it, that’s a lot more weight going over.

“I’ve personally experienced strong crosswinds in excess of 50 miles an hour while loaded at about 80,000 pounds,” says owner-operator Dave Hein of Good Thunder, Minn. “Even then I got blown around quite a bit while rolling down the road. It’s not a good feeling to have 40 tons swaying behind you.”

To know if your load is heavy enough, find out the wind’s strength.

“If the wind is strong enough, it will take you over,” Hein says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re grossing 40,000, 60,000 or 80,000 pounds.”

Most tractor-trailer rigs weigh between 30,000 and 40,000 pounds empty. Add 30,000 pounds of freight and you’re between 60,000 and 70,000 pounds.

Is that enough weight to hold a big truck and dry van on the road through 40-knot gusts? If you’re not sure, ask other drivers, preferably those with more experience. Get the information you need to make a decision.

“You’re the captain of that ship,” Hein says. “It’s your call.”

Wait it out
If you aren’t certain whether your load is too light or the conditions too rough, wait until the weather changes. Hein likens driving in high winds to driving on icy roads – both conditions are worth shutting down for.

“You’re better off shutting down until the winds die down,” Hein says.

If the wind is strong and the roads are icy, too, you’re not going anywhere safely. You might get lucky once or twice, but driving in high winds, especially on slippery roads, leaves no room for error. Sooner or later a relatively harmless mistake or event will cause big problems.

Dispatchers and fleet managers might disagree or even question your courage. But they won’t be in the truck when the wind blows it over or off the road.

You’re the driver. You make the call. If you feel it’s too windy to drive and dispatch disagrees with you, call the safety department, where they put “safe” ahead of “on time.”

No matter if other drivers take the risk – they’re the reason there are so many accidents in high winds.

Company policy might help with the decision. If information about high winds was available beforehand, the driver continues anyway and the truck winds up on its side, some carriers will charge the driver with the accident. Your employer will likely expect common sense: don’t drive a light load through high crosswinds. The results of parking and delivering late are a lot easier to handle than the aftermath of tipping over in the wind. Also, if you’re parked safely and correctly and the wind still blows your truck over, it’s likely you won’t be blamed.

Seek shelter
If you’re already driving with a light load when the strong winds hit, seek shelter.

“One scenario is you find a lot and park with the cab facing into the wind,” Hein says. “If you’re parked facing the wind, you have a 99 percent chance of not getting blown over.”

If you’re miles from shelter, lots or even exit ramps in a strong crosswind, all isn’t lost.

“If you have to pull over in high wind, here’s a tip that might save your life,” says Coastal Pacific Food Distribution driver Henry Miranda of Moreno, Calif. “Drop your landing gear.”

Also, park with the tractor and trailer forming an angle, with the tip facing the wind. Positioned this way with landing gear down, a big rig should stay upright.

If you can’t park, there’s another remedy: a blocker.

“There are times when a driver who’s heavily loaded can take pressure off another guy,” Hemerson says. Once, while bucking a strong crosswind with a heavy load, Hemerson stayed on the windward side of a trucker with a lighter load. This blocked the wind for the lighter truck.

“We drove down the highway side by side,” Hemerson says. “We escorted him to the next exit where he could safely park.”

The driver knew the rolling windbreak probably prevented a wreck.

“He was so thankful,” Hemerson says.

Whether parked or driving, remember that strong winds convert harmless trash into missiles and tree limbs into clubs. “Watch for flying debris – anything that becomes airborne and can cause injury or damage,” Miranda says.

He also warns against distraction: watching windborne objects fly through the air instead of watching the highway and around the truck.

Prepare for the worst
If shelter, wind blockers and parking aren’t available and driving through the wind is your only option, give it your full attention. “Stay focused,” Miranda says. “Don’t sway or cut into the wind. That might flip you over. Don’t swerve to correct a lean. Swerving only makes it worse. Stay as straight as possible, maintain a safe speed, and watch out for junk flying through the air.”

If you’re loaded light in a 40-knot crosswind and there’s no way to stop, you’re in a high-pressure and very dangerous situation. The truck’s tipping probability is high.

When trucks tip, drivers experience weightlessness, being thrown violently against doors and windows, and flying objects. Prepare for that scenario. If you have a cell phone, secure it close by. Glance around the truck and try to throw loose belongings back into the sleeper. Notch the safety belt a few clicks tighter. Empty drink containers; extinguish cigarettes. Slowing down doesn’t necessarily help, but speeding is out of the question.

Power through
One more technique might save you: fighting power with power.

“A bull hauler in Pocahontas, Iowa, once told me to make sure you have enough horsepower to maintain control – ample power to pull the trailer out of high winds,” Hemerson says.

Just as more power to its rear wheels helps a Nextel Cup racer counteract crossways centrifugal force around curves, throwing power to a big truck’s drive wheels should counteract a crosswind’s push to the side.

“It sounds crazy, but it works,” says 34-year veteran driver Hemerson. He says for a while he pulled a lot of 13,000- and 14,000-pound loads across Wyoming.

“When you cross Wyoming, Nebraska or other high-wind states, make sure you can put enough power to the drives,” he says. “Wind typically cannot turn over a trailer if you have enough power to counteract the wind and pull it out of the situation.”

Some trucks don’t seem powerful enough for this – not to worry, Hemerson says.

“Not every company driver has 500 horsepower to work with,” he says. “But you can get the same effect if you gear down.”

In other words, with a 10-speed, instead of running through dangerous winds at 50-55 mph in 10th gear, try it in ninth. This will keep the engine turning over at the speed where it can deliver more power when needed. But don’t use the cruise control.

“I turn it off so I have more control of the power,” Hemerson says.

Know the truck
Last but not least, know your truck, too. Some newer models come with computerized stability systems that manipulate the truck’s air-ride suspension when tipping potential is high. They lower the truck’s windward side and raise its leeward side to compensate for the wind. If your employer’s trucks are so equipped, ask safety how it affects driving in high winds.

As well, remember that most cabs have hydraulic or pneumatic suspension systems for a softer ride. When a strong gust hits, the suspension gives way, the cab leans, and it feels like the truck is tipping. But the rest of the tractor – frame, wheels, engine and drive train – is firmly on the ground. Watch the trailer wheels. When the wind starts lifting them off the ground, seek shelter, park safely or steel yourself for a scary, dangerous ride.