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Don’t Let Road Gators Bite

Summer is prime season for car-eating road gators. It’ll last well into September, according to a study by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. These vicious beasts can lie in wait 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.

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Road gators, says urbandictionary.com, are “bits of truck tires…(that) look like an alligator’s back.” “Bits” is a giant understatement. Road gators are treads that have separated from tires on heavy trucks, according to the study. These steel-reinforced “bits” can be 8 to 10 feet long and weigh 70 pounds or more, based on the size of many common truck tires.

A road gator’s bite can surpass that of a its namesake, slicing open oil pans, ripping off steering components, smashing through windshields and causing panicked drivers to swerve themselves into a crash, attempting to avoid the beasts.

The good news is that passenger vehicle drivers have many tools to avoid road gators. Also, those who pull small trailers or drive recreational vehicles can easily avoid increasing the population of this invasive species.

Don’t Be a Gator Creator

Many are quick to blame retreaded (or recapped) truck tires as the cause for road gators. While research is mixed, recent studies say that up to 70 percent of full-sized road gators come from “virgin” truck tires, while a similar percentage of smaller rubber chunks are from retreads. Check out the gators on the shoulder. According to a truck tire engineer, you can tell the difference between a “tread (or belt) separation” and a failed recap: The edge of tread separation will look ragged, like torn fabric. A recap that has lost its bond to the tire has a smooth edge.

Low tire pressure causes more than two-thirds of tire failures, according to the NHTSA study. The other top 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 their tires for cuts or other damage.

Driving any distance on a flat or severely underinflated tire can fatally damage the tire. For vehicles with tires in pairs—heavy trucks, motorhomes, dualie pickups—continuing to drive with one flat tire will likely cause terminal damage to its mate: Tires are paired to expand load-carry capability, NOT for extended mobility. Driving with one of a pair failed is the root cause of most road gators, said a safety manager for a truck fleet at American Freightways.

The reason summer months are prime road gator season is because heat can be a tire’s biggest enemy, behind only a careless operator. 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.

Gator-Dodging Techniques

Here’s what passenger vehicle drivers can do to avoid road gators.

1. 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.

2. If you notice a rash of brake lights and swerving cars ahead, slow down.

3. If you find a road gator in your lane, reduce your speed radically before attempting an evasive maneuver. Swerving at highway speeds to avoid road debris causes as many as 25,000 accidents yearly, the NHTSA study says.

4. Hitting a road gator may spoil your day, but panicked, aggressive steering can be a lot worse. Keeping control of your car is key.

5. Never lollygag alongside a big rig. This is especially true if you hear the birthing cries of a road gator. An uneven howl or continuous “whap-whap-whap” may mean a tire is soon to shed its tread.

6. 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 very long way at highway speeds.

Question of the day: Outside the U.S., are separated truck tire treads called “road crocodiles?”

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Mac Demere
Mac Demere is a veteran automotive journalist and a recovering race car driver. He raced in the 24 Hours of Daytona and NASCAR Southwest Tour series, and co-drove to victory in five 24-hour races. In addition he was a certified test driver for a major tire maker. He currently is an instructor for an advanced teen driving school.

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