The Risks of Deadheading and Bobtailing


March 3, 2016 / Truck Accidents

Deadheading? No, we’re not talking about your flower garden, nor are we referring to a Grateful Dead concert. And bobtailing has nothing to do with animals. Both deadheading (also known as bouncing) and bobtailing are trucking industry terms. Deadheading means driving, usually a return trip, with an empty trailer, and bobtailing means driving the tractor portion only, with no trailer attached.

The ability to stop is vastly different whether you are driving a loaded trailer, an empty trailer, or a tractor alone. Believe it or not, it is easier to stop a loaded trailer more securely. Both an empty trailer and a tractor alone are less balanced than a well-loaded truck.

Deadheading Dangers

One study, done in Western Australia, found that truck drivers who had recently unloaded their freight and were deadheading their trailer home were two and a half times more likely to crash. But why?

Several factors come into play, it seems. One is that the trailer, when empty, is more likely to sway from side to side, increasing its risk of toppling over. If the weather is the least bit windy, the tendency for an empty trailer to sway and cause a rollover crash becomes even more pronounced. Stability is much more compromised than if the truck is fully, correctly loaded. Even a mild wind can cause a dangerous situation.

Another factor can be that drivers acquire less experience in what it is like to handle an empty trailer, because deadheading, while not rare, is not the norm. No one wants the expense of hauling an empty trailer without a load paying for the expense of running the rig, so independent drivers and trucking companies alike do their best to avoid it.

Finally, as you might expect, the need to return to home base often means deadheading happens at night, as the reason to take on the expense of driving an empty trailer must be compelling for someone to do so. The same study found that drivers were four times more likely to have an accident if over half of their driving time occurred between midnight and 6 a.m.

Bobtailing and Balance

You might be wondering how it could be harder to stop a tractor with no trailer attached. Shouldn’t a lighter vehicle be easier to control?

A tractor has most of its weight in the front of the vehicle, because both the weight of the engine and the cabin are over the front wheels. Now imagine a tractor-trailer, and the tens of thousands of pounds of freight in the loaded trailer. That weight pushes the rear tires of the tractor onto the road, keeping everything stable. Without the trailer holding down the rear wheels, the tractor has a tendency to pitch forward onto its front wheels if the driver hits the brakes hard. The end result is that the driver could lose control, or it could take longer to stop the tractor, because only the front wheels are in contact with the road.

A truck’s brakes are designed to work with the weight of a full trailer, so when the tractor isn’t pulling a load, the brakes are “touchy.” If the driver slams his foot onto the brake pedal, the wheels can lock and an accident can occur. If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle and used only the front brakes, you know that the bike will pitch forward with its rear wheel raised. Perhaps you’ve had a bike accident in such a situation. This is exactly what can happen when a driver is bobtailing, only the risk is greater as it involves heavier machinery, other vehicles on the road, and potentially high speeds.

Although experienced drivers should be capable of dealing with an emergency situation, if a driver is not used to bobtailing, or is new to trucking in general, the potential for a deadly accident exists.

Indiana truck accident cases can be complex legal claims that require thorough investigation and demand aggressive litigation to secure the best possible outcome for the plaintiff. While monetary compensation can never undo the damage done as the result of a truck accident, a financial recovery can ease the financial burdens caused by overwhelming medical bills, loss of income, and disability.

If you or a loved one has been involved in an accident with a tractor-trailer, whether empty, full, or involving only the tractor portion of the truck, we suggest you talk with Indianapolis truck accident lawyer Mike Stephenson. With more than three decades of experience, substantial financial resources to commit to your case, and a commitment to the highest standards of client care, you can count on Mike. Contact him today by calling 1-317-825-5200 for a free accident consultation, or use our online contact form. At Stephenson Rife, when others breach their duty, we keep ours.

Attorney Mike Stephenson

Attorney Mike StephensonMike Stephenson has 40 years of experience and is a trusted advisor to many individuals and companies. His current practice is dominated by civil litigation in state and federal courts. He focuses much of his time on handling catastrophic injuries caused by all types of accidents, including motor vehicle, trucking, workplace injuries, product liability, and fire, just to name a few. He also works extensively in construction accidents. [ Attorney Bio ]

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