Inexperience, unsecured loads and improper trailer maintenance can have fatal consequences

ST. GEORGE — On any given day, there are passenger trucks and SUVs traveling along Utah’s many highways and interstates pulling trailers of all kinds, but lack of experience pulling a trailer, sloppy maintenance or an unsecured load can lead to crashes that can have catastrophic consequences.

Unsecured loads and projectiles

In Utah, the 3,000 miles of designated interstates, highway and expressways can become a dumping ground for debris thrown from an unsecured load.

The task of addressing all of that debris and the crashes that can result falls on the shoulders of the Utah Highway Patrol, and troopers see the consequences of road debris every day, according to a statement released by the agency. 

In fact, the agency responds to more calls involving road debris than any other type of call. Over the past five years, troopers have entered nearly 139,000 log entries for time spent responding to road debris alone – which is an average of 76 times a day.

Arizona Highway Patrol Trooper Thomas Callister has been patrolling Interstate 15 in Arizona over the past 18 years or so.

File photo for illustrative purposes only of a single-vehicle crash involving a Hyundai SUV pulling a camping trailer on Interstate 15 north of Cedar City, Utah, July 23, 2021 | File photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

Callister said that anything can become a projectile when dislodged from the load at freeway speeds, and even smaller items that do not pose any danger can become deadly when thrown from a load.

The Utah Highway Patrol provides a list of safety tips that include tying down each load using rope, netting or straps, and making sure large objects are secured directly to the trailer or vehicle. They also recommend that motorists cover the entire load with a sturdy tarp or netting and make sure the vehicle is not overloaded.

Double checking the load to make sure it is secure is also recommended, and any worn or weathered straps or bungees should not be trusted.

Regardless of how short a trip is or what the vehicle is hauling, UHP said motorists need to make sure that each load is properly secured – every time.

Trailer maintenance is another key

According to Callister, troopers responding to these crashes often see a motorist who was pulling an unsafe trailer. He went on to say any trailer that goes out on the road should be maintained and inspected routinely.

2017 file photo of a fatal crash involving a truck pulling a camper trailer along southbound Interstate 15 near milepost 32, Washington County, Utah, Oct. 9, 2017 | Photo by Kimberly Scott, St. George News

Trailer tire failures are one of the most common causes of trailer crashes that troopers see, he said, adding that blown tires can send the wheel flying off the trailer. The wear and tear on a trailer tire is much different than a vehicle tire, he said. These tires can degrade from oxidization or from being stored for long periods of time, so the tire tread may appear to have little wear, but the rubber itself has become compromised.

Tires that are not properly inflated can negatively affect handling by creating more rolling resistance and making the engine work harder, but it can also increase tire temperatures, which can lead to a blowout.

In one such deadly incident, Callister said a driver was struck with a wheel that shot off of trailer of another vehicle. The tire was worn to the point it ruptured, and the pressure caused the wheel to come off and bounce over the median where it struck the windshield of a passenger car head-on, killing the driver. The pickup pulling the trailer was going more than 70 mph when the tire came off.

To prevent this kind of disaster, Callister said tires should be replaced every two years.

Unhitched, unchained runaway trailers  

Experts say that using the proper equipment, and more importantly, making sure the equipment is matched up appropriately, will reduce the risk of having serious problems later, such as hitch failures that can have catastrophic consequences should the trailer become disconnected on the highway. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reported that in 2016 nearly 50,000 trailer hitch accidents were reported across the U.S.

Serious or even deadly crashes can result when a trailer breaks away from a vehicle. Properly hitching the trailer to the vehicle is essential, Callister said, and the next line of defense is the tow chain. Making sure the tow chain is sufficient to handle the weight of the load being pulled is critical, but even the best tow chain cannot prevent disaster if it is not connected.

Callister said he has arrived at numerous crash scenes involving a break-away trailer only to find the tow chain was never connected. Had it been, he said, the trailer would have remained connected to the vehicle even after dislodging from the hitch. Without it, the trailer often shoots backwards, he said, and from there “it’s anyone’s guess.”

Knowing how to tow and proper driving behaviors

Infographic depicting debris calls received by Utah Highway Patrol during 2020 | Image courtesy of the Utah Highway Patrol, St. George News

It is important to remember that a car and trailer are longer and heavier than either one alone, which means more time or distance is need to pass another vehicle. And passing can also create air suction that tends to move between the two, particularly when the difference in speeds is great, when strong crosswinds are present or when one vehicle is very large – such as a commercial tractor-trailer.

There are also driving behaviors that can lead to a trailer crash, including fatigue, driving at speeds that exceed the trailer’s safe handling rating and inexperience pulling a trailer, which can result in miscalculations in both stopping distance and turning radius.

Additionally, improper loading is one of the leading causes of loss of vehicle control. If a trailer is not loaded properly or the load weight exceeds what the trailer can handle, the load can shift, which can cause the driver to lose control of the vehicle. That, in turn, can cause the trailer to fish-tail or break away from the truck, which then scatters the load everywhere, Callister said.

According to the Trailer Safety Week national campaign, proper weight distribution of a load is as vital as properly securing the load. As a general rule, the campaign states, to achieve proper tongue weight, place approximately 60% of the load forward of the axle and 40% behind the axle.

The vehicle pulling the load must also have enough power to pull the weight, otherwise it will not handle properly which makes it difficult for the driver to maintain steering control.

For more tips, visit the Trailer Safety Week website.

As UHP stated: “Other people’s lives may depend on it.”

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2021, all rights reserved.

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