column: Drivers must take caution when sharing roadways with trucks
Even cops get surprised. Once you think you have seen and heard everything, police work has a way of throwing something at you that teaches an officer perceptions are not always reality. Almost a whole shift was fooled many years ago when my partner and I were working the south side of Ann Arbor on the midnight shift.
Dispatch called a westside unit manned by “Hammer.” He was called “Hammer” because it kind of rhymed with his name and during a time when productivity numbers — not quotas — were a determining factor in who got specialized training and assignments, he liked to “Hammer, Hammer, Hammer.” “Hammering” was Ann Arbor Police Department cop slang for writing a lot of traffic tickets.
Communications called Hammer and told him there was a serious crash with injuries on westbound I-94, just east of the Jackson Avenue exit. I-94 at Jackson is a terrible place for crashes.
It is dangerous, especially in bad weather. There is a curve on I-94 that becomes slick and freezes quickly because it is on an overpass crossing Jackson Avenue. Furthermore, for eastbound traffic, cars and trucks are merging at slow speeds from a very short entrance ramp. This forces oncoming traffic to make abrupt lane changes going into that slippery curve.
Firefighter Amy Schnearle-Pennywitt lost her life working a crash at that location in 2006. Countless other first responders have had to run and jump out of the way of careening cars and trucks there. It is a dangerous area.
My partner that evening was the “Dancing Bear.” I’m not sure if he could dance, but he was a big, tall Teddy Bear of a man unless he was provoked and might “dance” all over you. Our assignment was to shut down westbound I-94 at Ann Arbor-Saline Road if necessary.
That would mean using the police car and all its emergency lights as well as setting a rather long traffic flare line in order to get traffic either to exit I-94 at Ann-Arbor-Saline Road or form one lane. It all depended on the severity of the crash and how much of the roadway was blocked.
Hammer was known for getting to calls quickly. When the emergency lights and siren were on, Hammer was “flying low” to get to the call. This being a serious personal injury crash, Hammer would give it his all to get there and potentially save a life.
Just before Hammer arrived, the even keeled dispatcher advised that Hammer should use caution responding, as there were reports from the scene that there were “ bodies or body parts in the roadway.” It sounded like a terrible crash.
That is when it happened. Hammer answered the dispatcher immediately, almost cutting off her radio traffic, that he had arrived on the scene. That was when everyone on the shift heard something I had never heard before or since. At the end of Hammer’s radio transmission we heard a terrible, “KA-THUMP.”
The sound on the radio was unmistakable. The Dancing Bear and I looked at each other wild eyed and with jaws agape and said in unison, “Oh my God!” The Dancing Bear added, “He didn’t did he?”
The “KA-Thump” on the radio could mean only one thing. Hammer’s car had run over something large in the roadway. I am sure the other officers on the shift were thinking the same thing, because they told me so later. None of us had heard a terrible, “KA-Thump” on the radio like that before.
It seemed like an eternity, but a few moments later Hammer calmly was directing the scene and making requests for ambulances, wreckers, lane closures and investigators. He apparently was undaunted and unconcerned by whatever he ran over.
We spoke to Hammer later and asked him what he had hit. He told me he had been driving down the shoulder to get to the crash scene and driven over what truckers refer to as an “alligator” or “freeway gator.” An alligator is the large strips of tread that separates from truck tires that have been “re-capped” or retreaded.
Hammer had a big laugh when we told him we were all worried that he had run over a “body part in the roadway.” The crash apparently was not that bad and there only were car parts in the roadway. The “gator” Hammer had run over had not even done any damage to his police car — but it sounded terrible.
Disintegrated truck tires can be a real hazard on the expressway. The separated tire treads can cause traffic to swerve and crash, or the treads themselves can cause a lot of damage if they strike a car.
One tip I have learned through experience is that if you smell burning rubber inside your car, while driving on the Interstate and there are trucks ahead, do not stay in their lane; move over as soon as you can safely do so. That burning rubber smell is a precursor to a truck tire tread separation or blow out. You do not want to be near either of those events.
Lock it up, don’t leave it unattended, be aware and watch out for your neighbor.
Rich Kinsey is a retired Ann Arbor police detective sergeant who now blogs about crime and safety for AnnArbor.com.