My family and I went to the Gulf of Mexico for a beach vacation, which meant we drove more than 2,000 miles on the Interstate highway system. Along the way, I saw plenty of tire debris and even a couple of trailers in need of some roadside service.
As I watched one trucker stare at the blown right rear trailer tire with the corresponding missing mud flap, the thought occurred to me that the entire situation could have been avoided. Though it's total speculation on my part, I'm guessing that he did not check the air pressure in all of his tires as part of his pre-trip inspection.
And when I say “check” the inflation pressure, I mean take a reliable air gauge and apply it to each valve stem so the pressure can be determined. The procedure of thumping tires with a club, stick, bar or the infamous boot-o-meter cannot find an under-inflated tire any better than a hand on the hood can find low oil.
A few years ago, I conducted a little experiment with the local transportation maintenance council. I inflated ten tubeless radial truck tires to ten different inflation pressures and asked the mechanics to spot the flat tire with a variety of thumpers. About half identified at least one of the tires with the lowest inflation pressures. But when I asked them to provide the exact inflation pressures, none of them were within 10 psi.
I will concede that the practice of thumping a set of eight tires can probably identify an obvious flat, but it will never find a set of tires that are equally under-inflated. Since tires naturally lose 1-2 psi every month, just one year of neglect can be enough to start heat and fatigue issues that will likely lead to another driver standing on the side of road looking at a missing mud flap.
Soon after the bills come in for roadside tire service, the first place management points a finger is at the maintenance department. Maintenance will then place the blame on the tire dealer who sold, installed, repaired or retreaded the tire in question. Even when the tire miraculously gets to the dealer for inspection, most concessions are based on customer satisfaction because the failures were caused by prolonged under-inflation.
Did you notice who was left out of the previous scenario? Nobody wants to blame the driver, even though I'm willing to bet that less than half of the pre-trip inspections conducted on a daily basis involve an air gauge because many drivers don't have one.
I might be generous by giving half the driver population the benefit of the doubt, but I've seen too many drivers hook up to a trailer at a terminal, hit the road after a brisk walk-around visual inspection, and then ask the road service technician to check the rest of the tires a few hours later because he didn't have an air gauge.
So if fleets are truly serious about reducing roadside tire failures, the best place to make an immediate difference is to equip every driver with an air gauge. There should be no excuses when each valve stem is equipped with an inflate-through valve stem cap because it only takes a few minutes to gauge every tire on an 18-wheel tractor and trailer. But during my drive to the Gulf and back, I also noticed a lot of advertisements for drivers on the back of trailers, so fleets have to be careful about how much pressure they put on drivers to gauge every tire during the pre-trip inspection. After all, trucks need drivers, gauges are expensive and fleets can always blame the tire.