Two wheels flew off a garbage truck near Ingersoll Wednesday morning, adding to a spike in wheel separations

By Megan Stacey, The London Free Press

The wheels just keep on rolling – right off the trucks.

Two wheels flew off a garbage truck travelling eastbound on Hwy. 401 near Ingersoll Wednesday morning, just a stone’s throw from the spot where a 50-year-old woman from Oxford was killed when a flying tire crashed through her windshield in November.

West Region OPP Sgt. Dave Rektor posted a live video stream from the shoulder of the highway on social media, saying he was at the scene of “yet another wheel off incident.”

“No injuries, that’s the good news,” Rektor said on Periscope. “Once again, (it’s) wheel separation from a transport truck, and potential for more disaster.”

Middlesex OPP Const. Liz Melvin confirmed that the wheels – two of them – flew off the vehicle.

“One went across three lanes of traffic and is resting on the median and the other one went about 60 metres off to the right, into the ditch.”

The garbage hauler was travelling eastbound on Hwy. 401, and the wheels came off at Five Points Road, just outside of Putnam, Melvin said.

There are have been a number of reported wheels flying off commercial trucks in the Oxford region over the past year, including two within weeks of the deadly November incident.

Steven Del Duca, Minister of Transportation, said the province is committed to frequent safety checks for transport trucks.

“I take my responsibility very seriously to make sure the road and highways Ontarian drive upon daily are as safe as possible, and that’s why I believe one wheel-off incident is one too many,” he said in an e-mailed statement at the end of February.

In 2015, there were 86 reported incidents of wheel separations in OPP-controlled areas of the province. But critics say that number is likely much higher when unreported incidents are accounted for.

“My heart sinks every time I hear of an accident on our highways, but when something as destructive as a wheel-off is so easily preventable, I know there is always more we can do,” Del Duca said.

The Ministry of Transportation refuted claims that vehicle inspection stations are sitting empty, saying that “MTO Enforcement officer resources remain relatively constant and commercial vehicle inspections remain a priority.”

In 2015, 112,842 vehicles were inspected, down from 113,351 the previous year, but rising considerably over the 2011 and 2012 levels.

Given the spike in “wheel-off” incidents in late 2015, the Ministry launched a campaign targeting truck wheels that began in late December.

“Inspections target wheel rim, hub and fastener conditions,” according to the MTO.

Between December and the end of March 2016, the blitz saw an extra 4,000 vehicles and 37,300 wheel assemblies inspected for defects, MTO said.

Of those, 44 inspections – around 1 per cent – revealed wheel related defects, and 23 vehicles were taken off the road.

The danger of those runaway wheels is very real.

“Had that tire struck somebody, they’d likely be injured or dead. This is serious stuff here,” Rektor said on Periscope after Wednesday’s flying wheels incident.

Police and MTO continue to preach about truck drivers checking their equipment and doing their own inspections.

But some in the industry have suggested another option – plastic lug nut indicators that show when wheel nuts are loose.

“They put them all on the lug nuts at 9 o’clock, and if you see one of these pointers that’s on one of these bolts that’s not at 9 o’clock, then you know something is going on and you’ve got a possible condition that you need to check,” said Woodstock resident and truck driver Mike MacPherson, who last year was awarded for 19 years of accident-free driving by an industry association.

But he said the lug nut indicators, like other products, are just one tool to spot safety issues.

More important is proper, preventative maintenance and keeping an eagle eye on your vehicle.

“If something starts going funny, like ‘I’ve got a vibration here’ or something doesn’t feel right, I’ll say ‘let’s get out and have a look at this,’” MacPherson said. He stressed the importance of a top-notch mechanical team and a group effort to watch for problems or decay.

“We all have to know what to look for,” he said of drivers.

MTO said that the indicators signal a problem - but only when it’s almost too late.

“The backing off of wheel nuts is the result of a wheel becoming loose, not the cause of a wheel becoming loose,” the Ministry said in an e-mailed statement. “Pointers or other devices that indicate a wheel nut has already rotated have some use in spotting a problematic wheel, but offer a very limited opportunity to catch the problem before a total failure of the fasteners and a wheel separation.”

MacPherson said it’s hard to pinpoint what’s behind the recent spate of flying wheels.

“The only thing I can suspect is that there’s older equipment on the road, people are keeping equipment on the road longer because of the soft economy and everything,” he said. “It’s really hard to know.”

But for MacPherson and his impeccable driving record, keeping trucks in tip-top shape is paramount.

“We’re talking about people’s lives here.”