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About Those Alligators

Buying crane, bucket and pickup truck tires.



“Y’all got a gator on the zipper at 172 and a full-grown bear at 174,” the trucker’s voice cracked from the CB radio I’d plugged into the power supply of my wife’s Accord Coupe; I’m on I-65, northbound, midnight to Chicago, where I’ll meet her in the morning. At 87 mph, I’m 121 seconds from the patrol car, so, naturally, I’m on the binders. With the speed needle at a licit 70 and the gator in my mirror, I lift the CB mic and thank the southbound driver for saving me from a serious speeding ticket. Coming back, he laughingly said, “Glad to help, bud. Glad to help.”

IF YOU BUY NEW tires, it’s quite possible that you’ve been ripped off for years. Really. Because, you may have been buying old tires you thought were new. Tire experts say new tires, even while chilling on the tire shop rack, will age, crack and harden. Think of a plain rubber band and then envision an old one, the kind that looks good until it breaks when you stretch it. Assign that vision to a tire, an old tire or a new one that has shelf-aged to a crisis point. It’s worse with motorcycle tires, because they require thick and sticky tread to adhere to the road, especially on sports bikes.

Old tires? On tire safety, the Atlanta-based Tire Safety Group presents four critical points.

First, tires begin to weaken and fall apart as they age. Second, the tire aging process happens regardless of whether a tire is on a vehicle or in a temperature-controlled room. Next, most tires begin to significantly degrade around five years from the date of manufacture. Finally, six years from the date of manufacture, most tires are no longer safe for use on a vehicle.

Retired over-the-road driver Bill Johnson said to not trust a tire that’s more than six years old. “That’s from the manufacture date,” he said, and added that old tires’ rubber loses its elasticity, easily heats up and, in certain circumstances, will blow off the tread, which explains the road “alligator,” CB lingo for the thrown tire tread often found along the highway’s dotted line.

Johnson also said it’s not uncommon for state patrol officers to check tire age when conducting roadside inspections, and, although the US DOT Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations don’t regulate tire age, state regulations might. The FMCSA does require a minimum tread depth for a steer tire of 4/32 in. (their designation) on every major tread groove (2/32 in. for other tire positions), and federal inspectors will issue a citation if one groove is less than the defined figure. Again, state laws can – and will – vary.


How Long Do Tires Last, Really?

Asking how long a tire should last is like asking cats to stand in line. Certainly, tire-use conditions vary and, therefore, tire lifespans vary, but my research reveals a litter of answers. The fundamental reply: “It depends.” Generally, tire information sources (there are many) agree that whether the tire has been exposed to the elements isn’t critical because rubber still hardens over time. As Johnson said, the functioning age appears to be no more than six years. He also noted that most manufacturers won’t warranty a tire older than that.

The FMCSA inspectors look at tire condition, not age figures. Apparently, that agency accepts the age/use recommendations of carmakers and tire manufacturers. Frankly, I’m not happy with either measure because urban tire dealers can fake-out en-trusting tire buyers by positioning stale “new” tires on sale racks to unload them, instead of ethically writing them off.

I know. I bought a set.

Mine, a set of “on sale” light-truck tires began to cup and vibrate (the truck suspension and shocks were fine) at 25,000 miles. Not only that, suddenly they just looked old. The dealer chief scratched his head, said he’d never seen anything like it, blamed lousy streets and said the warranty didn’t cover such damage.

One born every minute, right?

How to Determine the Age of a Tire

The tire manufacturers don’t make it easy, but each tire sidewall reveals numbers that tell the age of a tire somewhere. After 2000, the DOT required manufacturers to list a four-digit code where the first two numbers represent the week and the second two the year, thus giving you the birthweek and year of the tire. For example, the code 2212 tells you the tire was fabricated in the 22nd week of 2012. Older tires have different codes, but I’ll leave that to the antique car guys to decipher. Such numbers aren’t for consumer education, and are often part of a sequence of numbers. The original intent was to aid the NHTSA in tracking manufacturing dates on tire recalls.


My experience is to find the number on the awkward side of the tire, meaning inside the wheel or, as it was with those I recently checked at a tire dealer, on the wall side of the tire display. Be cautioned, however, that even if you check the manufacturing date, the tires the shop installs may not be the ones you inspected.

Tire Maintenance

More than one crane truck driver has suffered injuries while dealing with truck tire maintenance, thus I always recommend signshop bosses call in truck tire professionals when dealing with crane and bucket truck tire repairs. Large and unwieldy trucks require unique jacks, chocks and stands – and an experienced tire maintenance person who understands large vehicle dynamics.

Jim Park, writing for, said an 11 x 22-in. truck tire inflated at 100 psi has the potential energy to hurl a 16-lb. bowling ball three-quarters of a mile. Such tires are common on crane and bucket trucks. Park said truck tires can become life-threatening devices in untrained or inexperienced hands, noting that OSHA’s regulation 29 CFR 1910.177 requires employers to provide proper tire handling training for all shop personnel who conduct tire maintenance and service. The OSHA regulation also lists equipment and facilities required to do the work safely.


Crane and bucket trucks should have dual rear wheels – “duallies” – for numerous reasons. The first is weight capacity, as well as road and handling stability, especially when towing a trailer. And, if it’s a high lift rig, you want tandem axles with duallies – eight rear wheels and tires – for added load carrying, road handling and stability when lifting. Tandems also increase traction and heighten braking proficiency. In addition, extra wheels allow you to comply more often with road and bridge tire/weight distribution limits, and they increase the vehicle resale value.

On the downside, more tires cause more road resistance, thus you’ll use more fuel; this may be equalized by longer tire life, unless you drive in mountainous country where duallies tend to scrub in corners.

Another duallie factor is that bucket and crane truck drivers are often required to drive into construction sites or unmaintained roadside areas, thus road damage is a real probability. When working in such sites, sign truck – crane, bucket or pickup – drivers should inspect their tires at three points: before elevating the crane or bucket, before leaving the site and immediately after returning to the pavement. One maddening hazard is when a large object – a board, stone or metal fragment – lodges between duallie tires, because once underway, the entity will embed even further and can cause one or both tires to blow. Preferably, you discover the hazard before you leave the site (a flashlight is helpful for spotting objects in shadowed areas). The sooner you discover the hazard, the easier it is to fix the problem. Also, if you try to remove a tire-trapped object, remember that you’re dealing with high pressure tires, so do not use power tools or devices that may damage the tires.



Should you buy retreads? I won’t say, but will note that the FMCSA does not allow retreads or regrooved tires to be run on bus steering tires. As I can determine, this is the only federal regulation that limits on which axle position retreaded tires can be installed; however, their policy provides food for thought. Conversely, online retread sites remind you that the federal government buys retreads for its trucks. They also say the quality depends upon the retread operation. says fleet tire buyers often wonder whether retreaded tires are as safe and reliable as regular tires and adds that no research shows any differences in quality between the two. The primary reason to choose retreads, the site says, is because they are much less expensive than new tires and better for the environment (by reusing tire casings). The site quotes a Utah State University report that said the rubber tire tread – the “alligators” – that you see on highways isn’t from retreads, but, rather, from newly manufactured tires. And Bandag Inc., North America’s largest ISO 9001:2000-certified retread manufacturing network (1,700 locations), claims retreads made with its equipment perform equal to, if not better than, a quality new tire. Their spin also says Bandag retreads can last as long or longer than new tires and will outperform any cheap new tire.

I see retreads like sugar in coffee – your decision.

Closing advice: I always remember how my friend Boo (BooDoo Signs, Princeton Township, MN) says to ensure your crane or bucket truck is professionally rigged, so that an inspecting authority doesn’t see it as “a disorganized circus wagon.”



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