Are we doing enough?

Rolf Lockwood

Lord knows the stink was a big one. Lord knows we deserved it. Back in the 1990s when wheels were falling off trucks far too often in southern Ontario, the popular press tore us apart. Innocent people had been killed, after all.

So what did we learn? Wish I knew.

At first even industry veterans were mystified as to what was happening. Why? More particularly, why now?

The latter question has never been answered to my satisfaction, and there may in fact be no answer. The truth is, I think, that wheels were not coming adrift any more often than in the past, rather that happenstance concentrated a few horrible incidents in a place where public attention was inevitable.

When a wheel falls off a truck rolling across the prairies at 4:00 a.m., who’s going to notice? It bounces off the pavement and into a field of wheat. End of story. When it happens in one of the 16 lanes of Highway 401 across the
top of Toronto at 4:00 on a Tuesday afternoon, chances are 100% that people will know it, and nearly as certain that someone will be hurt. And in that case, the story has just begun.

As to the why of it all, it soon became apparent that simple ignorance was the core problem. Wheels and wheel ends and tires were erroneously seen to be simple bits of machinery that could be taken care of by the least well
trained guys on the maintenance staff. Complacency reigned supreme.

Folks didn’t understand the need to use a torque wrench on fasteners, nor did they know how to use one properly. For that matter, despite readily available information, people didn’t know the specific torque values required in specific cases. The honest ignorance spread to issues like rust
on wheels and rims – or even a simple build-up of paint — and what that can do in terms of preventing fasteners from doing their jobs.

There was no rocket science involved but training was obviously in order, and fast, so the Automotive Transportation Service Superintendents Association and a few manufacturers stepped into the fray and provided
some instruction right away. We helped them organize the effort, as it happens, acting as administrators for this temporary fix. Eventually, the Ontario Trucking Association took on the task and created a good course that is now used across the country.

The Ontario government, and I believe it’s alone in doing this, subsequently made a zero-tolerance law that makes the carrier ‘absolutely’ liable for mechanical bits and pieces that may fall off trucks. No defence is possible, not even the basic due diligence argument. Like the OTA, I think this is altogether too harsh, because there’s no maintenance regime in the world that can predict the failure of a mechanical component with absolute reliability. Not even close. We deal with unpredictable failures all the time, all of us, in trucking and out of it, so common sense has been abandoned here. Luckily, the vast majority of the failures we face have no effect on
public safety.

There’s no evidence one way or another to prove that the training, or the absolute liability law in Ontario, has actually improved things. I can’t believe that it hasn’t helped, and helped a lot, but I don’t know that anyone is
keeping track.

I raise all of this, and wheel-offs in particular, because I learned last week of an incident – and saw the pictures — in which a set of duals came off a trailer and crunched a small SUV pretty comprehensively. The little truck was parked at a convenience store some distance from the
highway, so the heavy wheel-and-tire assembly must have bounced madly for quite a while before hitting its version of paydirt. I can easily picture people scattering to get out of its way, and I can well imagine the shock that
the owner of the SUV felt when he came out of the shop, weak coffee and stale bun in hand, to find his Chevy totalled.

This happened in Texas, not Canada, but it got me wondering if we’ve become complacent about this issue and about mechanical integrity in general. I don’t know that we have, but I’ve also seen studies of varying sorts in the last few months that suggest we haven’t really nailed things down on
the mechanical safety front. The obvious example is brakes, where we still have a ton of work to do.

What I really fear, and there’s evidence to back me up, is an attitude amongst some carriers and owner-operators that in maintenance and inspection terms, the minimum will do. The law demands X, so I will do X and no more. In fact, ‘X’ is a simple regulatory matter, and it’s rarely enough.

Just food for thought. Better yet, for action.

Rolf Lockwood

Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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