*Securing External Loads*
By: ThePiedPiper
19 February 2004

How often have you desperately torn apart your house or your car, looking for something you just had yesterday? You know you just had it, but now, for the life of you, you canít remember where you put it. So you commence a room to room search, only to find it sitting out in plain sight somewhere near where you began your search. Weíve often talked, here in the Rubicon, about hiding things in plain sight, so it should come as no surprise that sometimes you may not notice things when theyíre right in front of you Ė even danger. But what you donít see can kill you.

Iím talking about external loads in vehicles. Think back. When was the last time you really paid attention to a truck that had things packed or piled in it while riding down the road? Hopefully, youíll pay attention after reading this.

In college, I rode motorcycles. My mother hated them. She was so clueless too. I got a new bike each year. Each bike was much bigger than the last, and each was a different color, yet when sheíd come to visit, sheíd dismissively look at the bike in passing and say ďoh, the bike.Ē She used the same phrase for the gold CL100, the red 350-4 cylinder, the orange 750, and the burgundy Gold Wing! When it comes to motorcycles, mothers are blindóto mothers, bikes are all huge horrid devil machines. And like most mothers, mine begged me to stop riding. Her favorite argument went something like this: "I know youíre a careful rider, but you could hit a rock or a pothole and get thrown from your bike and get run over." Itís amazing, isnít it, how mothersí imaginations run wild. So it was especially devastating when her words came back to haunt me a little over a decade ago.

On a warm night in August 1992, Paul Tilton, a local high school teacher from Jupiter, Florida was riding his Suzuki northbound on I 95. His friend, sammy, was just ahead of him on his own bike. It was almost midnight, and the guys were heading home. They were in the far left lane, doing about 65 or 70 mph. Sammy never noticed the car ahead of him. And Paul, riding another 20 feet behind, likely didnít see it either. Even had he noticed the car, he probably didnít give it much thought. It looked innocuous enough -- a pair of sailboards, with covers, tied to the back of the car with stretch cords.

But suddenly one of the cords holding the sailboard broke and the boardís cover flew off. It missed Sammyís bike and lodged into the front wheel of Paulís Suzuki, locking the wheel and throwing Paul almost 100 feet forward into the next lane. Paul was a big man -- six foot four, over 250 pounds. He survived the fall. But he didnít stand a chance against the 18 wheeler in the next lane. Witnesses said that he was starting to get up when the massive truck ran over him. By the time Sammy could turn around, Paul was dead.

Hundreds mourned the loss of this fine man and revered high school teacher. Paulís students idolized the passionate teacher who made history and economics come alive, and who wore leather jackets with matching shoes and ties and rode that beautiful bike. The kids at Paulís high school idolized him. He was their hero. They thought he was cool. He was interesting. He was fun. He didnít care about sucking up to the establishment. He was his own man yet he still thought the things he was teaching were very important. So his students figured those things were important enough to learn. And they learned. In a time when Americans lament the inability of public schools to teach their children, or even reach their children, Paul was not only teaching his students; he was preparing them for their futures. Yet in a moment of carelessness on the part of a sailboarder, this valuable human being was gone at the age of 42. Gone, too, were all the opportunities Paul would have had to push countless young people in the right direction. And gone was my brother.

So what happened to the careless sailboarder? Well, first, he strolled out of court, broadly smiling, when he was simply given a small fine and a few hundred hours of community service for taking Paulís life. Second, his insurance company paid Paulís kids the $10,000 on its policy limits. Thatís right -- $10,000 policy limits. Florida standards arenít too high. And the driver is living large somewhere in Florida still. Had he been a bit more careful, Paul would still be here. Sadly, that driver wasnít careful.

Sadder, still, is the fact that most drivers are not particularly careful about tying down loads. If truth be told, few even think about the possibility of injuring someone and fewer, still, consider the risks of killing someone. Frankly, people just donít think. All too often, they just throw things in their truck or tie something on the car haphazardly. But such loads pose a risk to everyone, whether in a car or truck, or on a motorcycle. External loads can kill people. It happens every year somewhere here in America. You donít want to hurt anyone, and you donít want you or a loved one getting hurt by a careless person either. So what can we do?

Here are a few tips.

If you are carrying an external load, use strong strapping designed for hauling heavy items. The straps that are designed for such things are specifically designed to handle the type of heavy forces that such loads impose on them during sudden stops. Donít rely on thin string or rope. Thinner rope and string can snap. And PLEASE DONíT use stretch cords. The forces of stopping and starting can increase the effective weight of your load against the straps tenfold or more. By definition, stretch cords STRETCH. And when they stretch, the load can slip out of the cords when force is applied.

Check your straps before each use for fraying and other wear. Fraying or wear suggests your strap is running out of useful life. A cut, on the other hand, means your strap has suffered a mishap but might otherwise be salvageable, albeit in parts. If any of your straps has a cut, but is otherwise good and strong, you can just cut off the strap where the cut or tear is located. If the strap is made of nylon, burn it at the newly cut end to prevent fraying. You now have a good usable, but shorter, strap. You may be able to do this for both ends and get two short straps. This is usually good for straps that get cut in one place by some sharp implement rather than by wear and tear that affects the entire strap.

Donít wait to replace a strap until it looks like it is about to fail. The pressure of a load puts a lot of force on straps and can cause them to fail abruptly. Keep spares in the car so that if you find a problem, youíre not tempted to use the defective strap "just this once."

Use multiple straps. Make sure they are secured tightly and positioned in a way that they cannot slip. I use the ratcheting type because I can tighten them down far better than I can tighten anything by hand strength alone. Try to position them in a way that ensures that each strap has another strap backing it up in case one fails. How you configure the strapping will depend on what you are carrying. Give it some thought -- carrying a load is always serious enough to warrant more than a haphazard effort. Sometimes, intertwining them is a good plan because it forms a semi-netting effect. But it also makes them interdependent so that if one fails, they all fail. Think it through.

Secure everything, however light. Even if youíve never seen it happen, the pilots here in the Rubicon will vouch for thisólots of things you might not think could become airborne can become airborne under just the right conditions. Plastic bags, pieces of cloth, and similar lightweight items can become airborne at speed. But even heavy items can float if the right conditions exist. So tie them down or stow them inside something.

Test your load by pushing against it as hard as you can. When you begin your trip, try a quick stop as youíre leaving to see if the load shifts. If it shifts, get out and tie the load down more securely. Reconfigure the straps, if necessary, until you get it right.

If youíre hauling heavier external loads, stay in the right lane while youíre on the road. Slow down. If something starts flapping or the load shifts in any way, pull over, stop, get out, and fix it. If a strap has become damaged, replace it with one of those spares youíre carrying.

If youíre not carrying an external load, stay on the alert as you drive along. Youíre likely to encounter some external loads along the way. Becoming aware of these vehicles is half the battle. If you approach such a vehicle from behind, evaluate the apparent security of the load. Youíll be amazed at the pitiful efforts some people have made toward securing their loads. That amazement just might keep you on the alert and save your life.

Try not to stay behind vehicles with external loads. If you have to stay behind one, do so at a safe distance. A good rule of thumb is to double the distance you ordinarily would stay behind a vehicle ahead of you. This will not only reduce the likelihood of getting struck by something coming off the vehicle ahead, but will give you additional reaction time in the event of a load failure. Develop and continually update an escape plan, taking into consideration the surrounding area as well as surrounding traffic. How many lanes are there? Is there a median strip available to you if you need it? Is there an emergency lane on either side of the road? Is there someone in the lanes to your right or left if you have to change lanes abruptly? Situational awareness is critical. If you havenít been paying attention to who or what is around you as you drive, now is the time to start developing that habit.

I usually triple the distance between my truck and an external load ahead of me. I drive a truck, so my stopping distance is a bit longer than the average carís. But it came in handy a few weeks ago. Some of the worst offenders are the one- or two-person tree-trimming companies. Theyíll pile branches into the backs of their trucks along with all sorts of refuse, and often wonít even tie any of it down with string let alone straps. Just last month, I was behind one of these vehicles. I saw that it had a large orange cooler sitting on the edge of one corner. All sorts of branches were piled as high as the top of the cab of the truck, leaning downward toward the rear of the vehicle (and me!). There was other refuse intermingled in with the branches. And then there was that cooler. It was just sitting there, perched atop some of the branches, in one rear corner of the back of the bed. There was no tail gate on the truck. It was just a question of time before that cooler went flying, so I tripled the distance between us. Sure enough, that cooler came off about a mile after Iíd first noticed it. It bounced in the road, and then off into the median strip, but it just as easily could have bounced up into my windscreen. I could have been roadkill had something like that happened at 65 mph.

External loads are dangerous and many of the drivers around you either donít realize it or donít care. Like so many other things in life, you canít depend on others to keep you safe. You have to depend on yourself. Be aware. Pay attention to what is around you on the road. Hopefully, youíll never have a close encounter of the external load kind. But if you do, I hope you are prepared for it and survive the ordeal to tell us about it. Be careful out there.

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