Tether Tech Truck

Former NASCAR driver’s securement system helps prevent potentially deadly wheel-offs

May 16, 2022
MEA Forensics estimates there are 50,000 of these events in North America annually. One reefer fleet manager believes the TetherTech Hub System can eliminate them.

One June Friday in 2013,  Billy Turner, then the owner of  a small fleet called BTEXP Global Services, was heading home from his office in Weatherford, Okla., when he came across a “really bad wreck” on Interstate-40. A mangled Jeep was surrounded by first responders. He found out just how bad it was the next Monday when an employee filled him in.

A westbound tractor-trailer’s rear trailer axle lost a set of dual tires, which caromed over the median and struck the 1997 Jeep’s windshield. Inside were four teenagers from Texas. Two died of massive head trauma and two others were hospitalized. The injured teens’ parents were traveling ahead and witnessed the horrific accident in their rear-view mirror.

“It just seemed like the most horrible thing anybody would ever have to go through,” said Turner, who had a fleet of 20 trucks and trailers at the time.

A few weeks later, one of his trailers returned with a missing set of duals. Fortunately, their disappearance did not cause an accident, Turner said. And though the death of those teens was labeled a “freak accident,” he says that wasn’t the case.  

“I started finding out it happens a whole lot more,” he noted. Once it nearly happened to him, but Turner saw smoke from the hub, created by friction from the failing wheel bearing, and pulled over. That friction can heat the runaway wheel end to 2,000 degrees F. That not only melts the spindle, but can start a brush fire if the rubber wrecking ball hits a dry patch on the side of the road.Even though Turner's wheel never detached, his trailer's spindle and hub were destroyed.

Turner started checking around for ways to prevent these wheel-off events when maintenance is lacking.

“There’s nothing out there,” all the distributors he spoke with told him.

This gave the former NASCAR driver a new challenge: “I just sat down and made it my mission to figure out a way to stop that.”

Turner had been involved with automotive engineering since he was an 8-year-old tinkering with go-karts, and though he had no formal engineering education, within five years he had invented a mechanical fastening device—with the help of Oklahoma State’s engineering department—which has the potential to stop wheel-off events dead in their tracks. Called the TetherTech Hub System, the trailer wheel-end solution comprises a handful of aircraft-grade aluminum fastening pieces for each wheel end, and a steel cable that holds them together through the axle.

“The cable connects moving parts by going through the center of the axle and attaches to each hub on either end of the axle,” Turner explained. “And that way your wheels can’t leave when you have a failure, because it’s all tied together. All of that clamping force that those lug nuts were holding there, now is transferred to the TetherTech system.”

The system, distributed by All Around, costs about $1,800 per axle and takes an hour to install. Every part is manufactured by Oklahoma City-based American Machining Solutions. Turner noted an investor in the machine shop told him a set of duals bounced off I-35 and into his daughter’s bedroom once.

“It just happens a lot more frequently than people can even imagine,” reiterated Turner, rattling off several other instances.

This system was vetted by the Department of Transportation and now is deployed on its trailers. So far there have been no failures.

“We’ve run [the TetherTech system] for hundreds of miles with no bearing, no lug nuts, or anything and it’s never lost any wheels,” Turner said. “After all of the torture testing that has been done to it, nobody has been able to make it turn the tires and wheels loose.”

Steaking a claim

Even when a trailer wheel off does not lead to injury or loss of life, the consequences can be catastrophic for a carrier, especially one that hauls perishable refrigerated goods. Bishop Trucking found this out firsthand, which is why the small Oklahoma-based fleet—which does both cold chain and oilfield work—began using TetherTech last fall.

“We had one hub-related failure where we lost everything on a reefer trailer—both wheels, both tires, brake drums,” recalled Joe Madore, manager of Bishop Trucking. “It pretty much just took that whole corner off the trailer.”

Bishop was moving a full load of beef, and the severe damage put the delivery three days behind schedule. That also pushed the meat three days closer to the expiration date, forcing the shipper to reduce the price.

“We ended up paying for half that load,” Madore said. “That was a $70,000 claim.”

A few months later, a flatbed used for oilfield work also lost a wheel.

“The first thing that goes through your mind is, ‘Oh, my God, I’m getting a phone call that somebody’s dead or there’s huge amounts of property damage,’” Madore said. “We were fortunate in both of ours that we lost them out in the middle of the country. We actually ended up finding both sets of wheels and tires just down the middle of the field.”

Madore said the lug nuts completely snapped off the hub and attached to the wheel. Both trailers were recently acquired form a larger fleet and had recently received annual inspections.

“We hadn’t even gone in and inspected them ourselves,” Madore said. He believes there was likely a torquing issue.

Madore also once was a NASCAR driver, and he knew about Turner and his TetherTech. The latest iteration of the device worked with automatic tire inflation systems (ATIS), which is what Madore was waiting for.

Bishop installed TetherTech systems on the front and rear axles of all of its trailers.

“If you just put it on the rear axle and then the front axle comes off, it’d really make you look liable,” Madore said, in the event of an accident and the following litigation. “You won’t go to jail for it, but you’d probably go to the poor house.”

Verdict is in

At the 2022 TMC Annual Meeting, the S.2 Tire & Wheel Study Group, in conjunction with the transportation-centric Scopelitis law firm, held a mock trial to show fleets how to defend themselves from wheel-related litigation. The case was not dissimilar to the one that killed those teenagers on I-40, or another in 2018 on the same highway in Oklahoma City that killed a 33-year-old woman. In the mock case, a woman only was injured, not killed.

“We don’t have any data on whether the numbers are up or down, but the costs related to wheel-off accidents are definitely going up, so it was topical,” said Kevin Rohlwing, SVP of training at the Tire Industry Association, who played the role of the smarmy plaintiff side expert witness to perfection. He levied blame at several parties, from the hub and wheel manufacturers to the tire dealer who had serviced the trailer. Ultimately, the fleet took the blame and had to pay.

“In the mock trial, the fleet was found to be 100% responsible because they were the last one to touch the wheel,” Rohlwing continued. “In reality, the wheel and hub manufacturers would have settled out of court, which they often do in civil litigation, which leaves the fleet and the tire service vendor holding the bag.”

He stressed that fleets should “know who is installing your wheels and how they are installing them.”

“Besides following proper procedures, the torque check after 50-100 miles is a good way to identify issues before they become problems,” Rohlwing advised. “Improper installation will typically result in torque loss shortly after the vehicle has returned to service. A simple torque check down the road after tire service will help ensure that nothing is loose and prevent wheel-off accidents from happening.”

He also said wheel-offs are easily prevented: “When proper wheel installation and inspection procedures are followed, wheel-off accidents are unlikely.”

Those aren’t always followed, which makes any loss of life or injury all the more tragic. He advised that fleets should research any aftermarket safety device and “consider all of the benefits and costs to determine if the investment is warranted.”

Tying in TCO

For Madore, accident prevention, and a clean conscious, outweigh any options of a return on investment. He insists he couldn’t face a victim’s family knowing “Your loved ones are dead because I was worried about $2,500.”

He also experienced those costly wheel-offs—which on the repair side alone can reach $11,000.

Turner explained that along with replacing the tire, wheel and brake drum, “the spindle is all chewed up and melted.”

“You can’t even put tires back on, so you have to call someone out and I have to cut that spindle off and weld a new one on,” he added. “You’ve got to wait 24 hours to put it back together because you can’t cool that real quick or you quench it.”

All Around, which started distributing TetherTech last June, has sold in the thousands so far. David Key, president of All Around, expects that number to surpass 100,000, based on recent testing that indicated other maintenance benefits. According to Key, TetherTech hubs prevent wheel-end play, bearing wear, and tire wear.

“This product holds all bearing components and wheels in place squarely to perfection due to the spring load on the cable and system,” he said. “This keeps the bearings at optimal wheel-end play without letting the wear cause needed adjustments on a consistent basis.

“This product not only saves the lives of the public, but also will pay for itself the first year,” Key asserted.

In Oklahoma, the ROI soon will be better, assuming a state bill is approved this summer by the house. Senate Bill 735 would establish the Justin Sullivan Trailer Safety Act and provide tax credit up to $10,000 to fleets that purchase safe wheel-tethering systems.

Sullivan was an 18-year-old who was killed by a wayward wheel in 2002. The day prior to his death, the standout catcher eyeing the Major League Baseball draft was named Player of the Year by The Daily Oklahoman.

Turner says he has become close with the Sullivan family—and if he has his way, he’ll never meet another one like them.

About the Author

John Hitch | Editor

John Hitch, based out of Cleveland, Ohio, is the editor of Fleet Maintenance, a B2B magazine that addresses the service needs for all commercial vehicle makes and models (Classes 1-8), ranging from shop management strategies to the latest tools to enhance uptime.

He previously wrote about equipment and fleet operations and management for FleetOwner, and prior to that, manufacturing and advanced technology for IndustryWeek and New Equipment Digest. He is an award-winning journalist and former sonar technician aboard a nuclear-powered submarine.

For tips, questions or comments, email [email protected].

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