By Jeff Barker
special to Land Line
Anyone who has been driving a truck for awhile has probably had their truck break down, leaving them stranded on the side of the highway at least once – it’s bound to happen sooner or later.
While breaking down in the middle of nowhere isn’t exactly what anyone would consider a pleasant experience, knowing what to do could keep an already unfavorable situation from becoming a very dangerous one.
It’s crucial to have a game plan that’s based on the old philosophy of “hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.” Having knowledge on what to do can make the difference between life and death.
So, you’re heading down the road and everything appears to be going fine until one of the following occurs:
Sudden loss of oil pressure
If your engine suddenly loses oil pressure, immediately push in the clutch, shut the engine off and steer the truck to the shoulder of the road. Stop as far away from the traffic lanes as possible and put your warning triangles out immediately.
Do not try to restart the engine. The idea here is to not cause any more costly damage to your truck’s engine than what may already be done. If you made it to a safe place off the road, then you can do the following:
• Check the engine oil level to see if it’s OK.
• If it’s not OK, check to see if the oil filters or drain plug may have worked their way loose or busted open.
• If the filter(s) just worked their way loose, then you can call a road-service truck out to replace your oil filters or drain plug and top off your oil.
• If that isn’t the problem, then you will need to call a tow truck to come get you and tow your truck to the respective engine dealer to get it checked out and repaired.
If you see an “engine shutdown” or similar warning light other than the oil pressure light, start working your way to a wide spot on the shoulder as far away from the main lane of traffic as possible.
If no safe place to pull over is immediately available, hit the “engine override” switch to keep it running – each push of the override switch is usually good for 10 seconds before the ECM shuts the engine off.
Once you are parked, put those warning triangles out and check for fault codes by doing the following:
• Turn the ignition switch on, but do not crank or start the engine.
• Locate the engine override switch and hold it down for a few seconds until the red engine warning light flashes a code.
• Count the number of times it flashes for the first and second code numbers. For example, two flashes followed by a pause followed by seven flashes would be a
• It may flash more than one code, so have a pen and paper handy to write down the codes before calling for road service. Mechanics will need this information so they can bring the right parts if it’s a simple sensor failure that can be fixed at roadside.
• Call the nearest respective engine dealer and give them your location. If it’s too far away from their shop, or on a weekend, they may recommend a tow truck come out. You should go ahead and get it towed in, as you and your truck being on the side of the highway for a long period of time just increases the danger to yourself and passing motorists.
If you burst a coolant hose and are parked in a safe place, a truck stop road service may be able to come out and replace the hose and fill up your cooling system at roadside.
If your truck’s radiator failed, you might as well bite the bullet and have your truck towed in to a reputable repair shop. Depending on how bad it failed, it may not hold water long enough to get you anywhere.
If you’re low on coolant but see no obvious leak, you can probably just top off the coolant recovery tank and get to the nearest engine dealer to get it looked at. Just be sure to get it diagnosed and repaired as soon as possible so you don’t have an engine shutdown occur at a bad time.
If you have a universal joint failure, you may be able to have road service come out and replace it. They will need as much information about your truck as possible – including the VIN and the exact location of the failed U-joint – so they can look up the correct part number and come prepared.
If it is another type of driveline failure, plan to call a tow truck, as most driveline repairs cannot be done on the side of the road.
With a steer tire blowout, do not panic. Get on the throttle to get the weight off of the front axle and gradually steer the truck to the shoulder. Do not hit the brakes. Just hold the steering wheel steady until your truck coasts to a stop on the shoulder.
If you lose a drive tire or trailer tire on a dual setup, slow down, turn on your four-way flashers and look for a safe place to park – preferably a parking lot. Make note of the tire size and position and make arrangements for a tire man to come out. Look at the rim and see if it’s damaged. If it is, ask that a replacement be brought out.
Air pressure loss
If you detect a blown diaphragm in a brake chamber, you can do the following:
• Remove the caging bolt from the side of the brake chamber. Then insert it while twisting it into place, and tighten the nut against the chamber housing; or
• Get a pair of Vise Grips and crimp the emergency line going to the defective chamber so your other brakes can be released and the truck can move. Once you have done this, get to the nearest repair shop and get the chamber replaced, as well as the air line that was crimped.
If another air system is the problem, it will depend on what is wrong. Many problems can be repaired on the side of the road, while other more serious problems – like an air compressor failure – may require the truck to be towed in for repairs.
General rules of thumb about breakdowns
As soon as you encounter a mechanical problem and have stopped, put out those warning triangles before doing anything else. Make yourself more visible to other motorists.
If your truck is broken-down in a travel lane, put out those warning triangles and then call the police to come out and block off the lane you’re in. Call a tow truck, because trying to do anything more than the most minor five-minute repair will usually result in a law enforcement officer calling one out without you having any choice of a towing outfit. And just think, if you tangle with some towing outfit that’s in cahoots with local law enforcement, you could see some exorbitant towing fees.
If your truck is broken-down on the shoulder and it becomes apparent that help isn’t available within a reasonable amount of time, don’t hesitate to call for a tow truck to come get you. While tow bills are expensive, your safety and that of your fellow motorists is more important than anything else. Also, in many states if another vehicle strikes your truck while it’s parked on the shoulder, you can be issued a citation and be held liable for the other party’s damages.
Selecting a repair shop depends on what is wrong:
- Engine problems: It’s usually best to have engine work done only at an engine dealer and not an independent shop when possible. If you run OTR, this will make it easier to get warranty coverage on the repairs. That way, you can call another engine dealer in the network for warranty repairs instead of being stuck nowhere near the independent shop that did the initial repairs.
- Non-engine-related problems: These can be repaired at a truck dealer or a reputable independent shop.
- Tires: Most tire manufacturers have a toll-free number to call so you can access their dealer network. Otherwise, you may need to locate another road service company to repair or replace the tire for you.
A word about selecting a towing company in an unfamiliar area: Once you have found a dealer to do the repairs on your truck, they can usually recommend a reputable towing company. A good dealer will not deal with a fly-by-night towing company, as they don’t want to put themselves in a bad position. Once you have the truck towed, make arrangements to pay the bill on your own, as the dealer may mark it up and cost you more money if it’s charged to the repair bill.
Editor’s note: This article is for information purposes only. If you’re not sure about performing the work yourself, it’s advisable to seek the help of
a competent professional.
Jeff Barker is an OOIDA member and a former certified diesel mechanic. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.