Sadder but wiser: The case of the falling fifth wheel

Sadder but wiser: The case of the falling fifth wheel

It almost happened to me. Maybe it has happened to you. No doubt you’ve heard of it happening to someone else. My dad was a professional truck driver but it happened to him three times in two years. I think that’s a record! I came that close to dropping our fifth wheel trailer on the truck bed rails.

No, I didn’t forget to lower the landing gear. Since my dad’s experiences, I have been especially careful to make sure the landing gear was down before I released the hitch. So if the landing gear was down, what happened? Like a lot of fifth wheelers, I place blocks under my landing gear. This procedure reduces the length the landing gear has to be extended, which seems to help stabilize the trailer. But the practice, and some carelessness, almost did me in.

The last time we parked I went into my unhitching routine. After getting the fifth wheel positioned, I placed the blocks and lowered the landing gear. Then I released the hitch, jumped in the truck and proceeded to drive the truck ahead. But I pulled the trailer too. I hadn’t raised the trailer high enough and there was still too much weight on the hitch. The block under one leg slid along but the other leg was hanging in midair about eight inches off the ground! I was just lucky the trailer didn’t slide off the hitch right then. Even now I cringe when I think of the damage that could have resulted.

I could argue that I had been somewhat distracted by our daughter-in-law’s greeting when we arrived. We’ve all had the experience of stopping to talk with someone while in the process of hitching or unhitching and then forgetting to do some part of the process. Have you noticed that the RVer with all the “helpers” is usually the one who gets into trouble? Because it’s easy to get distracted during hitching and unhitching, I wait to greet or say goodbye to a fellow RVer until after I know he’s completed his chores.

However, more important than the distraction was that I had allowed myself to become complacent. Hitching and unhitching had become a routine. Now, I believe in having a routine, a set procedure to follow each time, and I’m good about following it. But I allowed the routine to become a no-brainer — and that’s what really got me into trouble. It’s easy to become complacent when you are an “old-timer” at RVing. After you’ve hitched and unhitched a few hundred times you get pretty good at it. Breaking camp used to take an hour or more — now I can do it in 15 minutes, or 20, tops. It’s clear now that at least part of the extra time it used to take me allowed me to stop and think once in awhile.

Then there is the issue of the blocks. If the fifth wheel hadn’t been perched on blocks, the potential for damage would have been minimal. I went for years without using blocks for fear the trailer would somehow fall off them. I’ve seen some precarious setups that still make me wonder if the slightest movement would topple the blocks, allowing the fifth wheel to fall a foot or more. Because we use a king pin stabilizer jack and it is capable of holding up our fifth wheel by itself, I decided the risk of the trailer falling off the blocks was minimal. The thing is — I never considered the possibility of the trailer falling while I was unhitching, before the jack was in place.

What I should have done, and will do from now on, is set my wheel chocks before I unhitch. Yes, I do use them. But on a level site, which this was, I use them to stabilize the trailer rather than out of any concern for the trailer rolling down a slope. In this situation I didn’t set them until later. Now I know better.

So, I’ve learned a good lesson. I’ve changed my routine and I’m going to slow down a little and be a lot more careful. Thankfully, the lesson didn’t cost me more than a little embarrassment. Hopefully, you have learned a lesson from my close call, too.

photo: Prerana Jangam on pdpix.com

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