Your life is more important than your stuff
This is not a picture of the accident. This one is actually far better than the one I witnessed.
Yesterday I had to drive to Charlotte, NC to run a few errands and pickup a couple of Christmas presents for our kids that we had stashed at my in-laws place.
About 10 minutes from home, I was heading east bound on I-40. In front of me riding in the left lane, a car and in front of the car a Mercury Mountaineer (SUV) pulling a medium sized camper (a 24 foot or so travel trailer). A dump truck was in the right lane just ahead of the SUV. As the SUV pulling the camper passed the dump truck, he began to sway.
If you aren’t sure what sway is, it’s the movement of a trailer in a right to left motion towards the back of the camper. It’s very common with larger trailers or in trailers that aren’t being pulling by a large enough pull vehicle or that aren’t equipped with sway control.
The wind was already blowing across the freeway and that combined with the air coming off the dump truck caused the rear of his trailer to sway. I watched as the small amount of sway slowly became worse and worse. Being an experienced RVer, I knew the guy was in trouble. I backed off quick, as did the guy in front of me and the man driving the dump truck. We all watched as if in slow motion as the sway became worse and worse to the point of the trailer tires actually lifting up off the ground as it moved back and forth.
All of the sudden, the trailer swayed really hard to the left and landed almost perpendicular to the small SUV. As the tires hit the ground, the trailer rolled over on it’s side. The roll was followed by an immediate POP! which I knew right away as the hitch mechanism breaking. The force of the trailer rolling flung the rear of the SUV around so much that I could see both of the headlights. The tires then caught the freeway with a hard bite, and the SUV began to roll. It rolled twice finally landing on it’s side. The last roll dealt a crushing blow to the roof of the SUV, causing it to collapse down on the occupants. I prayed nobody was injured, but felt sure with that impact at the speed they were going, we were going to find someone seriously injured or even dead. I prayed still that there were no children in the car.
The two men in the car in front of me, myself and the dump truck immediately pulled to the side of the road. I dialed 911 as I ran towards the vehicle. The two men in front of me were already pulling the driver out. As I waited for 911 to answer, I yelled “Are there any children??” The one man replied “No, just a driver and passenger”. I quietly thanked God. I asked if they were ok, and he replied he thought so.
My attention went immediately to the travel trailer as they generally have two propane tanks. All we needed on top of the accident was exploding propane tanks injuring more people. The 911 operator came on. I described the scene, location and told her to get fire, medic and police out there. I hung up and removed the cover of the propane tanks. The smell of gas hit me right away and I saw that one of the hoses into the camper was broke. I quickly shutoff the gas. The battery lay in a heap just below the tanks. I thought about moving it, but was concerned I would cause a spark, so I waited for the gas to disperse.
I returned back to the couple who was in the SUV. Both were sitting on the hillside, obviously shook up but in really good condition. The male drivers arm had gone through the side window and he had a pretty deep cut on his arm. The female passenger had hit her head on the side window. She had quite the “goose egg” on her head, but was talking and under the circumstances pretty calm. I began talking to them, while one if the gentleman that had been in front of me wrapped the man’s cut with a bandage from a first aid kit.
The lady said she felt the camper start to sway, but the more her husband tried to get it under control, the worse it got. She knew after the first 10 seconds that they were going to wreck. She said when he hit the brakes is when everything went completely south. He tried to slow them down for impact, but caused them to roll instead. In my opinion, rolling was inevitable given their situation. I found out they were husband and wife heading out on a trip to visit friends and family for Christmas.
The husband got up and walked over to what was the SUV, then to the camper. He was very upset that they were all tore up, I would suspect both were totaled. I just told him that he should feel very fortunate they both walked out like they did and that as I watched, I honestly didn’t expect them to just walk out. I expected them to be seriously injured or dead. He said their seat belts saved their lives. I agreed 100%.
At that point we were looking at the camper. He had a load distributing hitch, but no sway control at all. Load distributing hitches level the weight of the camper across the whole pull vehicle. It avoids the problem of the vehicle looking like it’s climbing a hill when it’s really not. Anti-sway while not fully removing the issue of sway, makes a considerable difference in preventing it.
While I certainly can’t say that had he had the hitch equipped with an anti-sway device the accident wouldn’t have happened, I can say that I’ve been in a very similar situation with the 34 foot camper we had and the sway control along with me being educated on how to handle a sway condition saved me.
Soon after the first responding officer arrived, and minutes later an ambulance, 3 firetrucks and at least 5 NC State police. Myself an the other two men were asked to hang around for a bit to sign statements. The couple was whisked off in the Ambulance a few minutes later to be checked out at the hospital. I completed my statement, thanked all of the officers and fireman for their service and continued my trip to Charlotte.
I thought about the accident all the way home. The whole incident was a reminder of how much more important your life is than your stuff. While the man was upset about his SUV and trailer, I really don’t think he realized how bad the accident really was. Him and his wife were very fortunate that day. His trailer and SUV will be replaced, but their lives couldn’t have been. It reminded me of how important my family and friends are to me along with reminding me of how quickly our lives can be taken away from.
Given my experience with RVs, I thought I would share a few tips on avoiding a sway condition if you pull a trailer:
- Have anti-sway control - I don’t care how big your trailer is or how stable you claim your tow rig is, if you don’t have anti-sway control on your hitch set-up, you are risking your life and the lives of others. Anti-sway control systems are inexpensive and just might save your life. The accident I witnessed is proof of this. Sway does happen and it can cause a serious accident.
- Use an appropriate tow vehicle – I see far too many instances of people pulling large campers with too small of a tow vehicle. Do your homework, understand the the specifications on your tow vehicle and buy the horse BEFORE you buy the cart. DO NOT believe the RV sales people that say “No problem, your Yugo will pull that 26 foot trailer no problem”.
- Give way when passing a large truck or vehicle – Large trucks disperse a great deal of wind and air. If you are pulling a trailer and need to pass a truck or large vehicle, give extra room between you and the truck. Do not slow down as you passing either, instead accelerate. Accelerating and pulling the trailer will minimize the chance of sway. Anticipate the normal push/pull of the truck as you go by it. Expect it and be ready for it.
Dealing with sway
Even the best camper set-ups can sway. What may keep you out of an accident is knowing how to deal with it. Let’s say you are pulling your camper along and begin to feel the rear of the trailer sway, here’s what you need to do:
- Accelerate - I know this goes against reasonable judgment, but accelerating will pull the trailer in line. In many cases this will cause the sway to go away. Do NOT brake or slow down, it will make the sway worse.
- Use your trailer brakes – Any somewhat large camper is required to have trailer brakes that are controlled from a brake controller in the pull vehicle’s cabin. These controllers have manual brake buttons that will allow you to engage your trailer brake without engaging the tow vehicle’s brakes. Accelerating and pressing the manual trailer brake button will even further reduce the sway. Most of the time the combination of accelerating and hitting the trailer brakes will eliminate the sway.
If neither of these work and you are still swaying, than hold the manual trailer brake hard and begin slowing the vehicle down slowly. At this point you are most likely in trouble anyway, so you want to try to keep the trailer from coming around on you. Manually applying the trailer brakes will help to avoid this. Slowly your vehicle down will minimize your speed in the event you are going to wreck. If you need to steer, steer in the direction of the sway, not against it. Going against it will just magnify the problem.
If you have an RV camper or a large trailer, I hope you never have a sway problem, but if you do, I sure hope my tips will help. They would have helped the man and women that almost lost their lives yesterday.