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What Not to Do When Towing: Don’t Swerve for Debris

ford-f-150-hybrid-supercrew-limited--02-angle--black--exterior--front--towing.jpg 2021 Ford F-150 Hybrid Supercrew Limited | Cars.com photo by Aaron Bragman

Americans eager to resume vacation travel are hitting the road this summer, thanks to a confluence of conditions that are upending the travel industry. Picking up the slack is the recreational vehicle industry: Campgrounds and national and state parks are all reporting big crowds as RV and camper sales and rentals go through the roof. But driving a big RV or towing a trailer can be a daunting task for the uninitiated, and can even cause experienced drivers some sleepless nights. And for good reason: It can be stressful to pilot not only your own vehicle full of family, friends and gear, but also to tow something just as heavy behind you.

I had a moment recently during a weeklong towing adventure that everyone who tows a trailer dreads: a semitractor-trailer tire exploded in front of me, sending huge debris into my lane and forcing me into a split second decision — do I swerve to avoid it, or grit my teeth and run it over?

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My tow vehicle was our long-term test truck and Best of 2021 winner, the 2021 Ford F-150 Supercrew Limited hybrid — the latest and greatest luxo truck from Ford and the first F-150 to feature a full hybrid powertrain. The camper was a rented 2021 Airstream Flying Cloud 25FB, and the combined value of this rig was approaching $200,000 (Airstreams ain’t cheap, and neither is our F-150 Limited), so one wants to be as careful and cautious as possible when using it. We want to avoid damage and abuse, but as fate sometimes throws you a curveball, that’s not always possible.

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While driving through Tennessee during my trip, we approached an overnight stop at a winery, and about 15 miles from our destination, I pulled in behind an 18-wheeler tractor-trailer on the highway. I maintained a safe distance behind the semi, but that’s when I saw one of the truck’s rear tires explode. And it’s in this split second, when you see the massive piece of rubber-and-steel debris tumble out from under the trailer in a puff of dust and particles, that your brain immediately kicks in with an instruction to swerve. But don’t do it, don’t you listen to it.

dont-swerve-09 2021 Ford F-150 | Cars.com video by Aaron Bragman

Choosing the Best Bad Option

Swerving with that much weight on your bumper (in my case, a 5,300-pound aluminum camper) can be a recipe for disaster. Despite the F-150’s electronic sway control and weight distribution hitch, a violent, abrupt maneuver at highway speeds can send the trailer into a pendulum swing that can easily cause a jackknife situation or, worse, a rollover. When I saw the tire blow, my initial reaction was to jink right, as I hoped the debris would tumble into the left lane, but as it quickly became clear that this wasn’t going to happen, I made the fateful decision to just steady on and run it over. There are also risks with this decision — the thick, heavy truck tire loaded with steel cords could destroy your own tires or hit something underneath the truck or trailer. But those things are less likely to be control-losing scenarios than upsetting the balance and stability of your truck-trailer combo. 

I was fortunate in this instance, as the semi’s tire debris did not affect my own tires — but we did not emerge unscathed. The F-150 took damage to the protective underbody panel that shields the transmission cooler lines, which we noticed was dangling after we got to our overnight stop a few miles down the road. The debris also knocked the caps off the sewer hose storage tank on the Airstream trailer, which we were unable to replace until the trailer was returned to its owner. Thankfully, we didn’t lose the actual sewer hose; we were able to store it in the trailer’s rear bumper storage compartment instead. 

Moral of the Story: Be Vigilant, Pay Attention, Slow Down

Towing means staying ever vigilant about your surroundings and your options, and thinking a few seconds ahead of your situation so you can react quickly should a challenge like this arise. It takes practice and training to react properly when faced with a situation that involves road debris suddenly appearing in your path, but in this instance, gritting one’s teeth and staying the course was the right choice to make. 

What else can you do? Well, AAA has a few additional tips you might want to consider: 

  • Continually search the road 12 to 15 seconds ahead to be prepared for debris.
  • Maintain open space on at least one side of the vehicle in case you need to steer around an object.
  • Avoid tailgating the vehicle in front of you.
  • Reduce speed as much as possible before striking debris if you are unable to avoid it.

Hopefully, you’ll never have to make such a decision when towing something yourself, but you never know what the road will throw your way. 

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