A fine time to fix those loose wheels

IF there's anyone who should be familiar with the lyrics to country western songs while simultaneously being aware of the dangers of loose wheels, it has to be a NASCAR driver.

So when a wheel came off the car Darrell Waltrip was racing a few years ago, he reportedly bid adieu to the loose wheel by singing a parody of the Kenny Rogers song “You Picked a Fine Time to Leave Me, Lucille.”

There's never a fine time for a loose wheel to leave — at least not while the vehicle is moving. NASCAR drivers may have the skills to cope when the wheels come off, but the rest of us aren't real good at steering three-wheelers or dodging loose wheels while driving at freeway speeds.

Such occurrences are extremely rare, but it's in everyone's best interest for these events to become nonevents.

That's why a group of companies and trade associations has been working to improve wheel retention and highway safety. The first tangible fruits of their labor emerged last month with the announcement of its Recommended Industry Practices for Wheel Mounting and Application. The recommended practices are intended for trailers with gross vehicle weight ratings of less than 26,000 pounds, yet they contain common-sense tips that should be useful for anyone who operates a lug wrench.

The group is called The Trailer Safety Industry Coalition, and it includes the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers, the National Truck Equipment Association, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, and the Recreational Vehicle Manufacturers Association.

A report on the coalition, along with a list of the recommended practices it has published, begins on Page 81.

In a December 20 memo, the co-chairs of the coalition explained the background of the initiative — that the trailer industry has noticed more frequent warranty claims for wheel separation incidents.

In our view, a key phrase in the memo was “the trailer industry has noticed.” Reading a notice of proposed rulemaking in the Federal Register was not what made the industry aware. It wasn't a consumer group that brought the issue to the forefront, nor was it Congress.

We see this project as an attempt by the industry to take care of business and not wait for outside pressure to find a “solution.” Based on previous experiences, this “solution” frequently takes the form of tough legislation or an additional federal motor vehicle safety standard for which manufacturers would need to engineer, test, and certify.

Publication of (or even compliance with) these recommended practices won't guarantee the end of the story. NHTSA, too, is aware of the increase in wheel separation incidents. In fact, the agency has looked into the issue and already has identified what it considers to be causes of the problem. These factors include inadequately torqued lug nuts, too much paint on the studs, and questionably engineered wheel assembly systems.

The recommended practices have been published, but the work of the coalition is not over. Early this year, the group plans to research the factors that NHTSA has identified as reasons wheels come loose.

Wheels and tires are vital to highway safety, which is why they receive a lot of regulatory attention. One of the most sweeping regulations to hit our industry in recent memory — The TREAD Act — was inspired by fatal accidents associated with tire failures. But more accurately, it was triggered by parties who did not appear, at least to Congress, to be forthcoming about a safety problem. We wonder how much of today's TREAD Act would have been written into law if those who were involved in the Bridgestone/Firestone case had shared the Trailer Safety Industry Coalition's willingness to address the problem quickly.

The fact that the industry is working to solve an issue does not mean NHTSA will choose not to pursue future regulations. It does mean, though, that industry groups have taken it upon themselves to help address the concerns. It's now up to individual trailer manufacturers and dealers to review these recommendations and make sure their own individual practices measure up. By doing so immediately, you've picked a fine time to fix those loose wheels.

TAGS: Trailers
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