Paul Abelson, technical editor
Everyone cares for his or her own equipment. It just makes sense to do it, and it makes no sense not to. Your tractor provides your livelihood, just as your trailer does if you have one.
But what about someone else's trailer?
Many of those trailers are owned by companies whose primary business is manufacturing, distribution, agriculture — anything but trucking. Some don't maintain their equipment as regularly as they should. Even carriers may not properly maintain trailers. Tractors are accurately tracked and brought in or scheduled for preventive maintenance, but trailers are often lost in the system.
The late Don Dawson, former vice president of maintenance for Roadway and one of the leaders of The Maintenance Council (TMC — now the Technology and Maintenance Council), once told me he knew when every tractor would be in the shop, but he might not see some of his trailers for years.
Everyone keeps trailers longer. Many are now more than 10 years old. That's a lot of potential for wear and tear. Add in the potential for neglect, and you've got a recipe for failure.
Problems may be minor. Lights may be out, especially high-mounted clearance/marker lamps. The last driver may have brushed a tree and broken a lamp, or just had one burn out. Or the ground may have broken or corroded. A missing light won't cause an accident, but other overlooked items might.
Some overlooked items can cause major problems. A few years ago, I came upon a crash scene just minutes after it happened. A 50-pound chunk of cast iron came flying off a trailer brake drum from a northbound rig on I-55. It bounded across the highway, went through the windshield of a southbound four-wheeler and killed the driver's wife. The piece of drum I saw looked badly heat checked, with several other cracks about ready to break through. Could a pre-trip inspection have spotted the cracks? Could it have saved a life? Probably so.
Brake balance is important, but many owner-operators will control speed with the trolley valve. They want to use brakes the company replaces, not their own. Check trailer linings, so you'll know they'll be there for you, and always check trailer drums for cracks. The last driver may have left a disaster waiting to happen.
Gator tails on the road with wires sticking out of the rubber are a sign the casing has come apart. Nine times out of 10, the failure was due to excessive heat caused by low air pressure. When low pressure comes from a puncture on the road, it can't be helped. But if a trailer hasn't been looked at for weeks or months, the nail or debris may have caused significant air loss. Anything more than 20 percent could cause permanent weakening, and thumping tires won't detect low tires down to 60 or 65 psi. When a tire requires 100 to 115 psi to handle today's 70 mph speed limits, 70 psi is as much as 40 percent low.
Here's a challenge for anyone who thinks they can determine tire inflation by thumping. Come to the Walcott Truckers Jamboree this July. Let me lower the pressure on one or two of your tires, then you thump them and tell me which ones I changed. If you can tell, I've got $100 for you. I've made this offer for years, and never had to pay a nickel. Years ago, TMC ran a similar test with more than a hundred experienced drivers, at pressures ranging from 100 psi down to 60. At or above 60, not one driver could detect a low tire by thumping.
Tire pressure monitoring may soon be all electronic. Alignment and wear will still have to be checked, but National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is studying technologies to apply the Transportation Recall Enhancement Accountability and Documentation Act (TREAD Act) to big rigs. Brake manufacturers are developing electronic braking systems (EBS) and low-maintenance, long-life disc brakes. But even after all these marvelous engineering advancements are implemented, it will still be up to drivers to make sure nothing is broken.
Other problem areas found on company trailers
Air tanks that aren't drained can accumulate water. Water can't be compressed, and it reduces the volume for compressed air. Accumulate enough water and you may not have enough air to handle a long downgrade.
A few years ago, there was a rash of wheel-off accidents in the Northeast. A quick check of wheels for cracks and signs of rust, possibly indicating loose lug nuts, can prevent problems. Don't forget to check lube levels in the hubs. The last few that pulled the trailer you've been assigned may not have.
Check trailer tires for uneven wear, a possible sign of axles out of line. Even if you can't get it corrected, you should report it. It will save the company tire wear, and since misalignment reduces fuel economy, it will help the next driver's mpg.
Check the upper coupler plate for corrosion and possible separation. Accidents happen, sometimes with surprising results. I've seen post-crash photographs of tractors with their trailers' plates still attached to the fifth wheels — without the trailers.
When DOT inspects, lights, brakes and tires are the problems most often found, in that order. With LED prices coming down and more fleets switching to them, that order will soon change. LEDs and modern wiring are now so reliable that one company, Truck-Lite, has a lifetime warranty on lighting and wiring, provided all trailer lights are Truck-Lite LEDs used with their Series 88 sealed harness system. That's the life of the trailer for the first and second owners without ever paying for a lighting repair. Whether a trailer has LEDs or not, it's still a good idea to do a thorough light check.
By the way, to do a thorough job, you've got to get down on your knees sometimes. Otherwise, you won't see half of what you should.
Along with my gloves, rags, flashlight and tire gauge, I keep a pair of kneepads in my “inspection bag.” My personal favorites are Craftsman Gel-Tek comfort Pads sold at Sears. They hook on easily, and have a hard outer cup with soft gel and padding inside. I can drop quickly and not have to worry about hurting my knees or tearing my jeans. I also use them when I photograph trucks. Just like wearing gloves, they are a low-cost investment in your protection. Without protection, you might take shortcuts and that can be costly.
Here's a challenge ...
If you think you can determine tire pressure by thumping, come to the Walcott Truckers Jamboree this July. Let me lower the pressure on one or two of your tires, then you thump them and tell me which ones I changed. If you can tell, I've got $100 for you. I've made this offer for years, and never had to pay a nickel.