Don’t Let Road Gators Bite: Tips for Avoiding Tire Debris
Blown-out tire treads lying on the road are known in the trucking industry as “road gators.” When you’re driving down the highway, the textured rubber of a tire tread lying flat in your lane can almost look like the ridges and scales on the back of an alligator lying in wait. Road gators can happen at any time, especially on interstates where the speed limit is 70 or 75 mph. Most motorists notice road gators safely sunning themselves on highway shoulders but sometimes, they end up in the travel lane, so it’s a good idea to keep an eye out so you can avoid them.
A road gator’s bite may surpass that of a its namesake, slicing open oil pans, ripping off steering components, smashing through windshields and causing panicked drivers to lose control of their vehicles, attempting to avoid the beasts.
Here’s some information on why road gators occur and what steps to take if a vehicle loses its tire tread in front of you on the highway.
Don’t Be a Gator Creator
Low tire pressure causes a majority of tire failures, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Another cause is damage from smacking curbs, potholes and road hazards. To help avoid creating baby road gators, the NHTSA suggests that drivers check tire pressure with a quality tire gauge before every trip, never exceed the weight limit of the vehicle or its tires, avoid road hazards and regularly inspect tires for cuts or other damage.
Driving any distance on a flat or severely underinflated tire may severely damage the tire. For vehicles with tires in pairs — heavy trucks, recreational vehicles, dually pickups — continuing to drive with one flat tire may cause damage to its mate: Tires are paired to help expand load-carry capability, not for extended mobility.
Summer is known as prime road gator season because heat can be one of a tire’s biggest enemies. Underinflation, high speeds and uneven highways can combine to increase heat in a tire. Overheating breaks down the tire’s internal components — both fabric and the bonds between different layers and types of rubber. Soon, another road gator will be born.
Here’s what passenger vehicle drivers can do to help avoid road gators.
- Keep Your Distance on the Road: To help increase your reaction time while on the road, stay 3 to 5 seconds behind the driver or truck in front of you, and never tailgate, according to the National Safety Council. Scan the roadways for debris so that you have time to react. Look far ahead and notice what you see. Increasingly larger bits of rubber laying on the freeway may mean a truck tire just shed its tread and a road gator may be in your lane. A big rig sitting alongside the road a half-mile ahead is an extra hint.
- Look for Brake Lights and Swerving: If you notice a rash of brake lights and swerving cars ahead, slow down.
- Reduce Your Speed: If you find a road gator in your lane, reduce your speed before attempting an evasive maneuver. Swerving at highway speeds to avoid road debris is too dangerous and should be avoided when possible.
- Stay Calm: Hitting a road gator may spoil your day, but panicked, aggressive steering can be a lot worse. Keeping control of your car is key.
- Respect Big Rigs: Never cruise alongside a big rig as it may not be safe due to their large blind spots, longer stopping distances and limited maneuverability, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. This is especially true if you hear the early cries of a road gator. An uneven howl or continuous “whap-whap-whap” may mean a tire is soon to shed its tread, in which case you’ll want to safely move away from the large truck.
- The Shoulder May Be Your Friend: If you need to swerve around a road gator, the shoulders of many interstates offer adequate traction if — and this is a big “IF” — you can keep two tires in the traffic lane. If you spot a road gator, keep calm and smoothly drive toward the shoulder. The shoulder may be dirty and slippery — and it’s where old road gators live — so make a slow, smooth turn back onto the freeway. Also — you don’t need to miss a road gator by 3 feet; 3 inches are plenty, so don’t swerve more than you need to. A little cautious steering goes a long way at highway speeds.
Seeing road gators is part of highway driving these days, but remember that they can be dangerous if they are in your driving path. If you can spot them early and learn how to safely maneuver around them, you may help prevent an accident or vehicle damage. Remember these tips to help avoid road gators so that you get to your destination safely.
Originally published on June 19, 2014.