The phrase “things that go bump in the night” may sound like a title for a horror movie, or even a cheesy writing contest, but can also indicate a warning for those who drive trucks.
While traveling down the road, most drivers get pretty tuned in to the sounds heard in the cab — the hum of the engine, the sound of tires on pavement, maybe air leaking through a window channel. Most truckers can instantly discern a sound or a feeling that isn’t “right” — something that’s not the norm. The same is true when the vehicle is parked at a truck stop or other location.
While driving, “bumps” can indicate running over an object in the roadway. It’s always best for a driver to see objects, including roadway defects such as potholes, before hitting them, but hat can be hard to do at night, when it’s harder to identify small objects until it’s too late. Objects in the roadway can include trash, parts or cargo that have fallen from another vehicle, or just about anything.
In addition, many animals are active at night and sometimes wander onto the road. Some may be simply crossing, while others are seeking warmth in the pavement or something to eat (such as road kill or even salt). Whatever their reason for being there, creatures can be hard to spot until it’s too late. If the driver is checking mirrors or gauges, the first indication of an animal or object in the road could be a “ka-thump” that is both heard and felt.
Feeling bumps while driving can also indicate a mechanical problem. Parts can vibrate loose or break, falling off at the worst possible time. Belts and hoses can break, tires can sling pieces of tread, and internal components of engines and transmissions can come apart. Drivers who hear something that sounds wrong — or even just different — will want to find a safe location to pull over and check for problems.
At night, finding a safe place to stop and check can be a difficult task. Road shoulders aren’t safe in the best of conditions, and they often contain debris that’s been worked outward from the travel lanes by passing vehicles — and could now cause more damage to yours. When possible, a well-lit parking lot with other people around is the safest bet.
Wherever you stop, carefully observe your surroundings before getting out of the truck, and periodically after that. Don’t get so focused on finding the source of the noise that you become vulnerable to an attack. By the way, every driver should have a quality flashlight on hand.
When parked at a truck stop or rest area, it can be more difficult to identify “strange” noises. The sound of an idling engine, a running auxiliary power unit (APU) or a fan for heat or air conditioning can mask a lot of sounds outside the truck. Even the sound of closing truck doors or people talking can become “normal” if you’re there long enough to get used to it.
Many drivers are instantly alert when someone steps up onto their truck, even if they don’t try to get in. Someone opening the back doors on the trailer can cause enough movement in the tractor to wake the driver. Someone climbing into the trailer or jumping out can cause even more movement.
It’s an unfortunate fact that some people at the truck stop sometimes do things to sabotage trucks, like pull fifth-wheel release handles or steal fuel, wheels or other objects. It pays to be alert.
If you hear or feel something suspicious, always carefully check around your truck and trailer before opening any doors. Criminals can easily hide behind the tractor or directly in front, pushing or shaking the tractor hard enough for a driver inside to feel it and then ambushing the driver as he or she exits the cab to investigate.
Years ago, one unfortunate driver was woken up by someone pounding on the door, who said that he hadn’t pulled in far enough to allow another tractor use the space behind. Unbeknownst to that driver, thieves had positioned boards under the inside tires of each axle. The driver only moved a few feet, but it was enough to drive onto those boards, raising the dual tires enough for thieves to remove the outside wheels and tires. That driver went to bed with an 18-wheeler and woke up with a 10-wheeler and a story to tell his safety department.
If you suspect someone is lurking around your truck, it’s a good idea to call the police or truck stop security rather than confronting the person yourself. It never hurts to at least have a second set of eyes on whatever is happening. In a worst-case scenario, you could be harmed in a confrontation — and no one would know to call for help. Remember the adage that no load of freight is worth your life.
Those occasional bumps and sounds will probably turn out to be harmless, but by paying close attention and checking it out when necessary, you can increase your chances of bumping the dock at your next pickup or delivery.
Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.