Our First RV Accident -> Tow Comes Loose in NC
I’d planned to write a very different blog post today. We’d just finished a week on the Outer Banks of NC, staying in 3 different spots and I was going to give everyone a run-down of that.
It’s was a fabulous week and I’ve got lots to share, but sadly we had a towing accident just 2 days ago that damaged both our car and our RV and pretty much flung everything else out of my mind. Thankfully no-one was hurt and our immediate concern is just getting everything fixed, but it’s going to be a long road to get it all done.
Travel-wise this also means our plans will likely change again (arghhhh!), but we’re hoping we can stay close(ish) to our original coastal plans and that our faithful blog readers can maybe steer us to some good East-Coast repair spots. There are also lessons to be learned here, but I’m not sure we know all the answers (yet).
So What Exactly Happened?
We were traveling down Hwy 24 just outside of Cedar Point NC when Paul noticed something strange. Our tow car was behaving oddly and seemed to be swerving into the other lane. We have a rear camera so we think he noticed it almost as soon as it happened. This was a positive thing. Also there was no-one traveling in the lane next to us when the car swerved out, also a very positive thing. Honestly had our car hit another driver it could have been tragic, and it’s my biggest relief that didn’t happen. We have to be thankful for those two pieces of incredible luck, despite the material loss.
Now the less positive part.
Given we were on a busy freeway with an out-of-control tow our #1 priority was to get the car and RV off the road as quickly and safely as possible. So Paul did what he could to get to the side of the freeway and slow down in as controlled a manner as possible. This was not an easy task, especially given how freaked out we were and I give him full kudos for how well he handled it (I’m not sure I would have been as calm), but there was just no way he could prevent what happened next.
Since the car was only attached by one tow arm and swinging wild on the left side of the RV, as we slowed down it naturally smashed into the back left back end of the rig. We have a US Gear auxiliary braking system* on our car and my personal opinion is that helped to slow everything down quite a bit, but it just wasn’t enough to completely limit the damage. In the end the front hood of car was smashed-in, the left back end of RV indented and our tow bar bent was bent and is now unusable.
The good news is that everything did the job it was meant to do. The metal part of the car is meant to crumble in order to absorb the impact of a collision and our auxiliary brake is meant to slow the car. The collision was soft enough that none of the air bags deployed and we honestly didn’t feel a thing inside the rig. It could all have been much, much worse.
*Note/ We also have an emergency brake release cable on our car, but it didn’t engage. The emergency brake is there to stop the car in the event both tow arms fail and the car gets completely loose from the RV. In our case only one arm came loose, so the brake cable didn’t pull, the brake alarm did not go off and the car kept moving. All cables were still attached when we finally stopped.
How Did it Happen?
So this is where it gets interesting, so to speak. The way our bar attaches to the car is with a thick 1/2″ cross-pin that threads each tow arm to its respective attachment on the the base plate. The big cross-pin is then secured in place by a small cotter pin**.
In theory this is all fine and dandy. The big 1/2″ cross-pin is really what holds everything together and when your tow bars arms lock in their extended position it’s wedged pretty tight in there (when we unhook we sometimes have to pull pretty hard to get it out). So, the little cotter pin isn’t really under any stress and serves mostly as a fail-safe stopper.
But that’s also exactly where we “think” the failure happened.
There’s no way we can know for sure, but very likely the little cotter pin either somehow broke or sheared, or popped off*** allowing the big pin to slowly start working it’s way out as we drove the the bumpy, windy road up the coast. It probably took a while (many miles?) to come loose and if we’d been on a straight/flat road nothing might ever have happened, but once that big pin started slipping out the rest was inevitable.
One little pin = lots of damage 🙁
** POST-POST EDIT #1 – Several commenters pointed out my terminology is off here. What we had on our bar was not actually a cotter pin, but an R-pin or hitch pin. I will leave the post as-is, but wanted to add this as an extra note for clarity.
*** POST-POST EDIT #2 – Several commenters brought up the possibility that our pins were maliciously removed by pranksters. We initially hadn’t considered this scenario (at all), but I cannot deny this is a real possibility. We were stopped on the ferry for 2 hours giving someone ample time to tamper with our tow connections. And admittedly we did not check them after. Paul can’t actually recall if the other cotter/R-pin was there after we had the accident and removed the remaining arm (we were both too freaked out at the time to notice). But we can’t seem to locate the pin now and if BOTH pins were really gone then tampering is the most likely cause. I hate to think someone would intentionally do something that could endanger lives like this, but if so our conclusion of implementing more road checks (after every stop) would have caught it. This is definitely something we will change in our procedures going forward.
It’s Happened To Others Before Us
Amazingly it turns out we’re not the first folks to have this happen.
When I posted our accident to Facebook several RV friends immediately responded back that they’d run into exactly the same failure. The cotter pin on their tow-arm pins either broke or came off and the big pin started working its way out. Some people managed to notice before the arm completely detached, but others suffered quite serious damage similar to us. Knowing what we know now it seems like such an obvious weak point in the system. Why would tow bar manufacturers even design something like this?
Interestingly enough most of the folks that reported the same failure said they had older Blue Ox tow bars. Initially I didn’t pay much attention to that.
Roadmaster Helps to Narrow Down the Story
Now I have to say upfront that Roadmaster has been incredibly helpful through this whole ordeal. We made contact the very next day and they offered to help in any way possible, including complete replacement of parts. Their customer service and response has been fantastic. We discussed the accident, I sent them pics of the damage and that’s where it got interesting.
Turns out the folks who did our installation in San Diego (top-rated guys by the way) back in 2010 didn’t use all-Roadmaster parts for their install. They used a custom base-plate which is actually designed for Blue Ox bars. So, in order to connect our Roadmaster tow bar to their custom base plate they took off the original Roadmaster connectors and replaced them with Blue-Ox compatible connectors. So, what we actually have is a Roadmaster tow bar with Blue Ox-type connectors.
Huh??? I never knew that??!
We were total newbie RVers back when we got our tow bar and simply took our car to the best-rated authorized tow bar installer and paid for them to hook us up with a Roadmaster bar. We never realized they made modifications or used different parts for anything, and honestly we never thought to check it afterwards. Our contact at Roadmaster was actually at a loss to explain why they would use a set-up like this at all.
Is THAT Why Our System Failed?
No, but it did bring that cotter pin into play and made our whole system more prone to error.
Our Blue Ox-compatible connector is actually an authorized part made by Roadmaster. They make the connector for folks who already have a Blue Ox plate (say) on their car but for whatever reason want to switch to a Roadmaster tow bar. So, the parts are all totally legit.
But the connectors ARE visibly very different. The specific type of Blue Ox-compatible connector we have uses a simple cotter pin to hold the main cross-pin in place whereas the original Roadmaster connector uses a much thicker linch pin that wraps around and snaps (locks) in place. The way the parts connect are different too. Just look at these pictures:
This locking-type connection means it’s much more difficult for that linch pin to come off, whereas a cotter pin can potentially be popped off, given just the right trigger. The linch pins are also a lot heftier/thicker than a cotter pin. All the Roadmaster designs use this more foolproof set-up. All new Blue Ox designs (from what I can tell) also use these better locking/linch pins too. It now appears to be the industry standard.
So basically we just had an older (and somewhat unusual) set-up. It was an approved set-up, it was considered safe (as far as how it was installed and used), but it was simply more open to issues with that single cotter pin. One small failure point is all it ever takes.
What Happens Next?
We’re already working with our insurance company (Geico) on all the claims. We have both RV & car through the same insurer so that will hopefully make the entire process somewhat simpler. Also we’ve had our insurance for long enough that we have accident forgiveness (we’ve had Geico for over 10 years and neither of us has ever been in a auto accident) so our rates shouldn’t be impacted by the claim.
But of course it’s going to take time and lots of patience to get everything fixed.
Our car (Honda CRV) obviously sustained the worst damage. We initially thought it was only surface damage, but we took it to the dealer yesterday (just as a precaution), and it’s a good thing we did. Turns our our radiator was damaged and the car was not safe to drive. After some frustrating hours on the phone with the insurance company yesterday afternoon we managed to pull off the miracle of having an assessor come look at the car this AM which meant we could get the radiator fixed this afternoon. It all went seamlessly in the end, and the Geico assessor even cut us the check (minus our deductible) for the remaining damages already. Go Geico!
At least the car is driveable now, even if it still looks like a car wreck (sorry, had to put some humor in all this). From here on out it’s just body work.
The RV took much less damage from what we can tell, but the back-end is visibly dented. We don’t think anything internal was damaged, but we will take her in for a check at the very next Cummins shop we can find, just in case. Also the RV assessor is (hopefully) coming to see the RV in Charleston next week which will get that process moving forward too. Then we’ll need to find a good body shop to get her repairs completed.
Phew! I feel like I’ve aged 10 years in 2 days with all this. Much wine has been consumed….
What Could We Have Done Differently?
Whenever there’s an accident like this you always ask yourself the question “What could I have done to avoid this?”. An equally important follow-on question for my blog readers is “what can YOU do to avoid this?”. In the end there are things that we felt went right (and that we’re thankful for) and things we want to change…
The things that we felt went right:
- We Got Off The Road Safely: As far as handling the actual accident itself I don’t think there was much else we could have done. In a situation like this you just have to get yourself off the road and slow down as safely as you can and that’s exactly what Paul did. He kept a level head and no-one was hurt, and that is KEY.
- Our Auxiliary Brake Helped to Slow Everything Down: I’m a BIG supporter of auxiliary braking and I firmly believe our auxiliary brake helped to slow everything down and minimize the damage. Our car air bags didn’t deploy and our car damage wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. I absolutely recommend that every RVer who tows installs an auxiliary braking system. Seriously, just do this.
- Our Rear Camera Helped Alert Us: We rely on a slew of safety and check measures when we tow including our auxiliary braking system, our TPMS system and our rear camera. In this case the rear camera was really what alerted Paul to the issue. Without it we *may* not have noticed the car swerving so quickly. We’re very happy we have one.
- We Got The Car Checked: Although we didn’t initially think anything internal was damaged and the car was driveable we decided to get it checked anyway. It’s a good thing we did and I would encourage everyone who has an accident to do the same.
- We Took Pictures & Contacted Our Insurance Right Away: We took pictures of the car and RV at the site of the accident right after we got off the road. We probably won’t need them, but I felt it was important to have a record of the event just in case. Also we got the claims started the same day with our insurer which helped us when we needed to expedite the car repair the very next day.
The things that we want to change:
NO More Cotter Pins: I was very impressed with Roadmaster’s support after our accident and am still confident in their tow bar. So we are sticking with the same brand of tow bar for our replacement, but we will definitely be switching to a design that does NOT reply on a simple cotter pin to hold the cross-pin in place. Although the set-up that we had was technically ok, it just seems like an awfully weak failure point and I would not feel safe using the same again. If you have a set-up that uses a cotter pin like we did my advice is to see if you can replace the cotter pin with a heftier locking/linch pin or padlock ASAP.
- More Regular Checks On The Road: It’s possible we could have avoided all this by implementing more checks on the road. When we first hook-up we follow a pretty rigorous process where both of us double-check each others’ work (4x check), so we know without a doubt that the cotter pins were firmly on there when we started driving. But once we start driving we generally don’t check again. In this case we took a ferry (we were stopped for a while) and then had some bumpy driving thereafter and admittedly we did not double-check the tow connections after either of those events. I honestly have no idea if this would have helped**** (we really don’t know exactly when we lost the cotter pin), but I think that getting into the habit of walking around the rig and doing a double-check of tow connections whenever you are stopped (or things significantly change) is a good idea.
**** POST-POST EDIT #3 – If our pins were maliciously removed while we were stopped on the ferry (as many commenters have suggested as a possibility), then this would definitely have prevented our accident. We would have noticed the missing pins right then and there and could have taken steps to secure our connections before we started driving again. Stop re-checks are going to become a permanent part of our routine going forward.
Any Tips On Good Body Shops?
So that’s really it. We’re fine, the pets are fine, and no-one got hurt. It’s really the best you can hope for in any road-related accident. But now we do need to plow through the pain of getting everything fixed while still living in our home. We are hoping to keep to the same general route south that we had originally planned which will take us from Charleston SC through Savannah GA and into Tampa FL, although we may have to do extended stops at one of those spots for the repairs.
If any of you know reputable body shops (both car and RV) in any of those 3 spots please DO comment below. Also if you’ve had a similar failure or experience (or tips) you want to share please do so too. I’m curious whether this has been a problem for others outside my Facebook RV friends.
I’m honestly, deeply hoping this is the last of our unexpected expenses & travel changes for 2016. It’s been a challenging year, but hopefully it’s all clear-sailing (clear-driving?) from here. All fingers and 12 paws crossed 🙂
POST-POST NOTE RE 2017 HEALTH CARE PLANS/ This is totally unrelated to the accident, but I wanted to let all my pre-Medicare blog readers know that you can now browse 2017 plans & rates on healthcare.gov (open enrollment starts Nov 1st). My initial and very quick perusal shows that not much appears to have changed for the “top 3” RV state (TX, SD, FL) since the post that I wrote about this last year. For SD there’s the same Silver Avera plan that we signed up for this year, and for FL the same Florida Blue plan from last year seems to be available again too. I’m waiting to see what RVer Insurance writes about this in a few days and will get around to writing a more detailed post myself once we get past all this accident stuff.