As professional truck drivers, we are always on the lookout for dangerous situations. Drivers not paying attention, changing road conditions, and debris in the road are just a few of the hazards that can pop up unexpectedly. These "surprises", while not everyday occurrences, are common enough that we generally know how to deal with them safely.
But what about those things we don't see normally, or even think about? That is when our training comes into play. How we react can be the difference between an accident and a close call, or life and death. Let me tell you about one of my unexpected events that fortunately turned out good.
It Was a Normal Day
The day started out like any other day. I spent the night in Minonk, Illinois on my way to the Green Bay Area. I had plenty of time to get to my delivery, so I decided to stop at home along the way and have lunch with the family before continuing on to the delivery.
After visiting for a couple of hours, I continued on my way. The weather was beautiful and traffic was light. It was the type of day that every truck driver appreciates. I was only 3 months into my driving career and I was really enjoying it. This is what truck driving is all about. Clear roads, blue skies and a career that I enjoyed. Things could not have been better.
Things Can Change in a Heartbeat
As I was enjoying my day and my drive, I headed up US 151 in Wisconsin. I was headed east through Sun Prairie and had just set my cruise control. It was then that I felt the steering "drift." The road was rutted, so I didn't give it much thought. We've all felt that drift as the truck follows the ruts in the road. It is a little disconcerting at first, but we get used to it. I was also fighting a wind out of the north. It wasn't very strong, but enough that I could feel it pushing against the truck.
This was different though. As I corrected for the "drift" and wind, the truck didn't respond. At first, I wrote it off to the rutted road. It didn't take long for me to figure out though, that something much more serious was wrong. Something completely unexpected.
Control? What Control?
I was confused, but that confusion quickly turned to panic as I realized what was really going on. I had lost all steering. It was later determined that the Pitman Arm had come off the Steering Box, (yes, I did a thorough pre-trip inspection), completely disconnecting the steering. My truck was out of control at 63 mph. What was I going to do now?
I think the first thing I did was curse. Then I killed the cruise control. I needed to get this truck stopped. Strangely enough though as I raised my foot to step on the brake I didn't step down on the pedal. Call it luck, divine providence or skill. All I know is I did not step on that pedal. I know now that stepping on that pedal may have caused even more damage. I knew I was going to go off the road to the right because that was the way the truck was going. Stepping on the brakes could have caused the tractor and trailer to go in the other direction, possibly across the median and into oncoming traffic.
As it was, I was on top of an overpass and knew for sure that I was going over the side. Fortunately, though, I didn't. I hit the side of the bridge twice and then went down the embankment, coming to rest on the entrance ramp to the road I had just driven off. The truck stayed upright and I survived unscathed. The truck wasn't so lucky. The front edge of the trailer landed on the frame, bending it beyond repair, totaling it.
What I Learned
I plan on writing another piece about what this accident taught me, but I will share this about how I
think you should handle a situation such as this. In addition to always wearing your seatbelt:
- Don't Panic. Take a deep breath and determine what is going on.
- Take the power away from the wheels. Don't let the truck keep creating momentum. The quicker you can take power from the drives, the quicker you will start slowing down.
- Try to relax. This is really hard to do but could save you injuries. Grabbing the steering wheel and stiffening up against the impact could result in broken bones. It’s counter-intuitive, but it can be done.