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What happens when an 18-wheeler gets a flat?

Flat tires affect thousands of truck drivers each year, and debris from blown tires can be a hazard to all motorists.

During RoadCheck 2021, tires accounted for 1,804 out-of-service (OOS) violations — 18.6% of all trucks parked during the three-day enforcement event in May. Tires were second only to brakes as a cause.

Issues can range from underinflated, worn out or defective tires to trucks with debris lodged between dual tires.

Generally, when trucks have flats while out on the road, drivers have several options, including changing it themselves, calling roadside service or trying to get to the closest service repair facility.

By law, drivers are required to stop if they have a flat tire. Driving on a flat is an OOS violation. 

There were 164,694 accidents involving heavy trucks in 2019 (the latest full-year data available), with tire issues causing about 2%, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

FreightWaves recently conducted a survey of truckers about flat tires. Several said if a tire has a slow leak or they can still drive, they’ll try to “limp” to the closest shop their company has an account with or the nearest service station.

“Limped my drivers side rear outside tandem blow-out today from the 65 to the 42 on I-80 in Pennsylvania this morning and the tire shop charged $400 to be on my way back on the road in about an hour,” one truck driver said in the survey response. “The problem is it may start flying apart if you’re limping too fast and heavy — got to slow your roll.”

One driver said if they have a flat, they try to drive to a safe place to park, like a highway ramp or rest area/truck stop to figure out a plan.

“I have a jack, etc., and a spare but it’s not mounted on a rim yet, so I can’t do an actual change yet. But I can at least remove the bad tire and drive to a shop to get it repaired,” the driver said.

Another respondent said, “If I’m really, really far out and it’s a simple puncture on an outside dual, I’ll repair or replace the tire myself.”

Another survey respondent said he works as a service technician for a trucking company and sees flats all the time.

“Heavy duty tires are a little more complicated than car tires,” the technician said. “The prices vary a lot. Recapped trailer service tires are $210 each right now, but the big load range H tires we use on our steers are $650.”

The technician said changing tires isn’t generally hard, but it is a lot of work. 

“You need about $600 in specialty tools and a serious dedicated air supply to run the 1-inch gun. The tire assemblies weigh about 200-pounds for a dual position tire. You need a 20-ton jack that can handle the weight of a loaded truck,” the technician said. “You can dismount and remount rubber on outside position rims without taking the rim off the truck, but not for inside tires. Dismounting them doesn’t require much, two big tire spoons and a special hammer to break the bead. They can be patched in the field, but we don’t. We rotate repaired tires into service and take the punctured ones home to patch.”

Click for more FreightWaves articles by Noi Mahoney.

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