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Posted on Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 5:57 a.m.

Drivers must take caution when sharing roadways with trucks

By Rich Kinsey

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.


File photo

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


Ann English

Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 11:31 p.m.

When you say "trucks," I don't think you mean eighteen-wheelers. I remember driving north on US-23 when an eighteen-wheeler experienced a blowout on one of its right tires which did begin tearing, but no tire tread pieces were left in the roadway. I thought of Amy Schnearle-Pennywitt before you mentioned her; the crash took place on January 7, 2006. I was driving on eastbound M-14 that Saturday morning, and the police had closed the shared section of M-14 and northbound US-23 west of Barton Drive. Too icy. Driving north was fine, but driving east, a safe reasonable speed was closer to 30 mph than 60 mph that morning. For awhile I thought you were describing police involvement with Shannon Griffin's fatal accident on westbound I-94 between Ann Arbor-Saline Road and Jackson Road. Some police did close the westbound ramp from Ann Arbor-Saline Road onto I-94 that afternoon, whenever it was, because of Shannon Griffin's accident on that stretch of roadway. Cellphone distraction. No, Hammer's story had a much happier ending.

Linda Peck

Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 8:35 p.m.

Thanks! Great advice, good tip!


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 5:10 p.m.

Thank you Captain Obvious.


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 4:26 p.m.

Tires also start to get loud and start with a WUP WUP WUP WUP shortly before full separation too. I'm sure you've all probably heard it before just coming up along side a semi on the highway. Sounds a little like a flat but quieter.


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 3:55 p.m.

I love driving with my windows open. However I don't when on the expressway. I live near M14 and have heard trucks blow out a tire, it sounds like a shot gun blast. I don't want to be driving next to a truck when that happens. Alligators are extremly dangerous. I have had to dodge some big ones. Last fall I was driving on 94 and a whole tire was in the road way. If I would have tried to avoid it I would have had an accident. Luckily I didn't have enough time to respond other than to just center the car, I drive an SUV and hope I cleared it, luckily I did. But it was dusk, I called dispatch but I don't know if they moved it or not.

Woman in Ypsilanti

Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 3:53 p.m.

I have always wondered why trucks are even allowed to have tires which shred onto the roadway thus causing such a hazard to other drivers. I will keep that tip about the rubber smell in mind.


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 3:33 p.m.

I definitly use caution around the bigger trucks. But what I do not like seeing is when they swerve on the road and then when you finally get by them, THEY ARE YAPPING ON THE PHONE..... So they need to be aware of the drivers too. Becasue if they lose control it causes alot more damage.

Stacy Smith

Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 2:56 p.m.

Trucks should build their own roads, like the railroads had to. Especially as legislatures allow longer trucks and more trailers, this is necessary. Project truck growth (numbers and size) out a few years. Project car changes (lighter, more gas efficient) out a few years.


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 4:37 p.m.

25 square miles surrounded by reality


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 2:34 p.m.

Semi drivers probably drive better on a percentage basis than their more diminutive counterparts. However, I find it much more disturbing when I see them yakking on a cell phone or texting while moving along. I tend to speed up and get way ahead of them. Oh, and please don't try to pass on 94 while going through Ann Arbor. You don't have the speed to pass quickly and choke up both lanes.


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 1:31 p.m.

Would love to have truck driver write and tell of his/her experiences on the roads around Ann Arbor. I have been told some real horror stories by local truck drivers. They put up with some of the dumbest driver stunts ever. Try driving a semi around Ann Arbor sometime. Quite an eye opener.


Sun, Aug 26, 2012 : 12:05 p.m.

@Linda, that is one of the dumbest comments I've heard. Why are folks so naive when it comes to logistics? Trains are fine and good, but how do the goods get from the freight yard to the warehouse or store? I don't see Kroger or Plum Market having train tracks delivering food to them, yet I bet you don't think twice about how your food gets delivered to the store. Just no semis in your neck of the woods, right?

Linda Peck

Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 8:37 p.m.

Semis should not drive in town at all. Do like the trains do. They don't have to pull right up to the door.

Jim Walker

Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 1:05 p.m.

Once in a great while a driver can prevent "alligators" on the roadway. Besides the smell, a truck tire that is about to come apart usually makes a kind of whump-whump-whump sound that is pretty loud, even through closed windows of your car. Three times over the years I have gotten the attention of the truck driver so he pulled over to see what was wrong, before the tire violently failed. (And hammering is not unique to A2.) James C. Walker, National Motorists Association, Ann Arbor, MI


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 1:04 p.m.

Those are some very colorful names. I can only imagine what my nickname would be - and it rhymes with witch.


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 12:44 p.m.

It is quite some work you do that the possibility of their being body parts all over the road is just par for the course. Not sure if I could do it.


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 12:15 p.m.

It seems that something really needs to be done about these re-treads. I am tired of hitting or dodging them. In this case, I would actually like to see some government interference.

Frustrated in A2

Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 3:45 a.m.

Retreads are legal and they're cheaper which is right up a truck company's ally which is unfortunate for the rest of us.


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 12:11 p.m.

Yeah nothing like sharing the roadway with trucks. When they destroy the roads. When they Jake Brake in residential neighborhoods. When they refuse to let you merge and ride your behind when you defensively speed past them. When they tailgate and shine their brights in your back window. When their tires explode and the belts shred the tires of those behind them. When their rocks fly off and smash your windows or your AC condenser. When they occupy two of three lanes at 55 mph during rush hour traffic, knowing full well that they are making everyone's commute miserable. Thanks truckers - making driving miserable since the great depression.


Fri, Aug 24, 2012 : 2:37 p.m.

I will say what I have been saying since 2003...... The highways surrounding Ann Arbor are not sufficient. The only reason why truck may SEEM to cause a problem is because when you only have two lane highways (yeah sometimes its three: m-14 and i-94 after US-23) and you have commutor traffic coming anywhere from Toledo to Jackson to Howell to Detroit on a daily basis. This is the only reason why traffic gridlocks every single day. If the highways were 3-5 lanes like how they are out for any other city that has this amount of traffic.


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 4:08 p.m.

You forgot to thank them for delivering the food you ate today, and the clothes you are wearing. I also hate Jake Brake in residential neighborhoods.

Woman in Ypsilanti

Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 3:55 p.m.

While I appreciate the necessity of trucks, I have long thought that we would be doing ourselves a favor if we could find a way to encourage as much freight as possible to be transported by rail.


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 3:25 p.m.

That is an awfully huge net to throw over truck drivers. While I have had a few of those things happen to me, it is not often. The vast majority of commercial truck drivers are consciencious and courteous. After all, it is their livelihood.


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 2:51 p.m.

Davidian you obviously don't think about what in your life that you use that has been delivered by those Horrible trucks. Almost everything we come encounter with has been delivered by a truck. And here is another tip for you- Maybe you should blame mother nature too. Because she causes alot of the same damage. Darn her. I am very thankful for Truck Drivers that do a great job. We need them. That goes for the Emergency Personell, to the Road Commission and to al the over the road drivers local and non local.

Frank Lee

Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 1:12 p.m.

Davidian – If you think truckers make DRIVING miserable, you would hate to know how miserable your LIFE would be without them. No embellished examples needed.


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 12:43 p.m.

Geez... I'd say the problem may be you. If you've had all these instances happen to you (I've never had a single one happen to me) you may want to check your driving. You are, after all, the common denominator in all these situations.

Jim H

Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 11:05 a.m.

Wow, Rich. Good information about the rubber smell and the Jackson road ramp, but you hit some sore spots in public relations with the hammering and dancing all over people. Two of the main reasons many people don't like the police. Best saved for coworkers and family gatherings,.


Thu, Aug 23, 2012 : 10:31 a.m.

Sadly many drivers spend their time doing everything but drive the car...Am still curious where I can get one of those 3rd arms they must be using to steer when eating and talking at the same time..