The Risks of Deadheading and Bobtailing

Categories: Vehicle Accidents

The trucking industry moves millions of tons of freight through Southern California every year. One tractor-trailer alone can haul approximately 45,000 pounds. Transporting this much cargo alongside passenger vehicles is certainly dangerous. Ironically, though, these trucks may present less of a risk when they are fully loaded. It is when they are empty or detached from their trailers that the likelihood of a trucking accident is greatest.

Defining the Danger

Like other groups of people who regularly communicate among themselves, truck drivers like to use jargon. Some of the terms they use are easily understood by the rest of us (thanks in part to a 1970s-film starring Burt Reynolds). Other terms, such as “deadheading” and “bobtailing,” are more obscure. Here is how those two words are used within the industry:

Deadheading: Pulling an empty trailer to go pick up a load at another location.

Bobtailing: Driving only the tractor portion of the vehicle, with no trailer attached.

Neither of these modes of travel conform to how an 18-wheeler was meant to be operated. Deadheading can result in a 50-percent or more reduction in gross vehicle weight. Bobtailing cuts even more weight, greatly changes the vehicle’s dimensions, and reduces the number of axles by at least two. From a trucker’s perspective, deadheading and bobtailing are like operating a different vehicle altogether.

Three Risks of Operating an Unladen Rig

Deadheading and bobtailing put motorists (including the truck’s driver) at risk in three ways:

  1. The truck becomes more difficult to control.

Tractor-trailers are often called “semis.” This reflects the fact that a semitrailer does not have its own axles on the front end. Instead, it rests on a coupling located above the rear axles of the tractor portion.

This weight bearing down on the tractor’s rear tandem drive axles is crucial because these axles receive the engine’s torque and most of the braking force. More weight produces better traction. An unladen truck is therefore more difficult to control, especially going downhill or on wet roads.

  1. Drivers have less experience operating trucks without a load or trailer.

Freight companies operating in California typically keep deadheading at or below 10 percent of total fleet miles. Bobtailing occurs even less frequently. On one hand, this is good news for motorists, since it means fewer encounters with these dangerous vehicles. On the other hand, truck drivers are not getting the necessary time behind the wheel to be familiar with how a deadhead or bobtail truck performs.

The lack-of-experience problem is exacerbated by the fact that drivers become accustomed to a fully loaded configuration. Human beings are creatures of habit. For better or worse, we tend to acclimate to our surroundings. A driver who logs 12,000 miles a month hauling full loads may be caught off guard when that same truck suddenly handles differently.

  1. Profitability concerns may result in unsafe driving behavior.

Imagine it is a Saturday morning here in Orange County. You are at home, planning a list of tasks to accomplish around town today. A trip to the hardware store, grocery shopping, going to the gym, and so forth. Now imagine you must drive home between each of the errands instead of doing them together in a single trip. Would your frustration affect your driving? Would you be tempted to speed in order to get everything done?

Traveling without cargo wastes a truck driver’s time and money. In the case of an independent owner/operator, the financial loss can be significant. A truck driver who is deadheading or bobtailing should slow down, be extra cautious, and concentrate on the road. As you can guess, this is rarely the case.

Questions of Liability

Personal injury cases involving deadheading or bobtailing may present complex issues of vicarious liability and insurance coverage (because the unladen truck may not have been under company dispatch at the time of the accident). If you were in a traffic collision in Southern California involving one of these trucks, please contact our office for advice.