Runaway and Repeat

John G Smith

I’m experiencing a new day and new job at Today’s Trucking, but there is no escaping the sense of déjà vu. Yes, I still lean on my GPS to find the office, and I think it will be several months before I remember the phone number, but something feels oddly familiar. Too familiar.

Two motorists are dead, killed by runaway truck wheels, and Ontario enforcement teams are in the midst of Operation Wheel Check – a campaign that leaves zero tolerance for any defects involving wheel rims, hubs and fasteners. If any problem is found, the equipment is parked. As this edition went to press, three targeted blitzes had inspected 29,400 wheel assemblies. More of the unannounced 24-hour blitzes were planned.

Paul Koenderman’s GMC Yukon was crushed this January as he traveled down Highway 400, north of Toronto. That fatal accident happened barely two months after a wheel smashed through Kimberly Coordes’ windshield as she traveled Highway 401, outside of London. But this is not why the story sounds familiar. I was reporting similar tragedies when I first began writing about trucks in 1995 as the newly hired editor of Truck News. Back then, the story included the death of Angela Worona, who was killed at the wheel of her Pontiac Grand Am. Jamie Tyrrell died in another collision barely two months later.

The trucking industry’s entire image was under siege in those days as obscure maintenance issues became leading news items in one of the most densely saturated media markets in North America. Roadside inspections attracted more TV crews than a Leafs game. Drive a truck for a living? You had to be ready to discuss vehicle safety over the dinner table.

Plenty has changed since a coroner’s inquest was launched into the 1995 deaths. Ontario mandated industry-developed training for wheel installers and introduced fines of $2,000 to $50,000 – the steepest such penalties in North America. The fines even include an “absolute liability” provision that accepts no excuses about why a wheel broke free.

So far the $50,000 fines have been more of a threat than -reality. Most penalties run closer to $2,000, and even the -“absolute” -provision has failed in court. One fleet won a case by arguing that its wheels did not detach from fasteners. The entire wheel assembly broke free. “Suppose a tractor-trailer lost the trailer it was -hauling,” Judge John Laskin concluded in that situation. “Although the trailer would have separated as a unit, because it included wheels, the owner of the rig could be convicted … such a result seems unreasonable.”

But make no mistake about it. A crackdown is underway. Ontario police have laid criminal negligence charges because of a recent wheel separation. Sources tell Today’s Trucking that the Ontario Ministry of Transportation has approved plans to revoke a Motor Vehicle Inspection Station’s licence. The Ontario College of Trades is looking to revoke a mech-anic’s Trade Qualification Certificate. Everything from wheel installation practices to preventive maintenance programs and inspection procedures are being evaluated.

As far as the province has come, there are still gains to be made. The Ontario Ministry of Transportation reported 215 wheel offs in 1997. The numbers dropped to 47 in 2010, and have been gradually rising since then. Last year there were 127. The totals probably scratch the surface. Given the penalties, few fleets are likely to report a wheel that rolls deep into the rhubarb off the side of the road.

But the challenge of lost wheels is not unique to Ontario. This should be a wakeup call to fleets, shops and drivers everywhere. It’s because everyone plays some role in the solution. Installers need to clean mounting surfaces and use torque wrenches to tighten fasteners in star-shaped patterns. Drivers need to watch for issues such as cracks in wheels or rust weeping from the bolt holes. Purchasing managers need to buy components that are able to withstand the forces which conspire against them; manufacturers are called on for products that are up to the challenge. 

Let’s all take the steps to ensure this story doesn’t repeat itself. 

John G Smith

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Canadian Shipper, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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