Thursday, September 21, 2023


Lessons learned from deadly I-81 RV crash

On August 9, at 9:00 p.m., a Class A RV traveling southbound on I-81 in Franklin County, PA, blew a left front tire, crossed the median, and struck a double tractor-trailer rig headed northbound. The collision destroyed the motorcoach. The five occupants of the RV, the Molander family, including their dog, of Middletown, PA, all died, as did James Shade of Martinsburg, WV, the driver of the semi-truck.

Not much is known about the make and model of the motorcoach, the family RV trip, or the driver. However, one fact consistently mentioned in all news reports was that the coach’s left front tire blew out. The driver lost control of the RV and never recovered it. We may never know much more—the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) told that it is not investigating the accident. But the circumstances are entirely consistent with what can happen in the case of a blown tire at freeway speeds.


An excellent article by Russ and Tiña De Maris in this edition of RV Travel explains the dynamics of tire failure and how to maintain directional control of an RV in a blowout. Michelin Tire produced an instructive video on how to maintain control during a blowout event.

My own experience suggests that over time and hundreds of safe and uneventful RV trips, a driver, no matter how diligent, well-trained, or informed, can fall into a state of complacency. A state of complacency, combined with a lack of recent thought or practice of any emergency procedure, increases the odds of disaster in the event of an actual emergency. Compound that with darkness, fatigue, poor road conditions, or driver impairment and you have a recipe for disaster. (We are mentioning these circumstances in general; we are not passing judgment on this tragic accident.)

Practice, practice, practice!

As an airline captain, I was required to undergo flight simulator training and a flight check every six months to demonstrate proficiency, particularly in the execution of emergency procedures. We practiced engine failures at critical phases of flight, tire blowouts, in-flight fires, system failures, and encounters with violent weather conditions, etc. It made total sense. An engine failure during takeoff in a commercial jet aircraft is no time to find out whether you can remember the engine failure procedures.

Likewise, a steer-tire blowout on the highway in a 35,000-pound motorcoach is not a good time to refresh your memory of the tire blowout procedure. I mentally practice the blowout procedure at the start of every trip. I also rehearse situations such as where the fire extinguishers are located, and how to use them. Just as you would conduct a proper airbrake check in a Class A motorhome, so should you give thought to the unique and somewhat counterintuitive “accelerate and keep control” procedure for catastrophic tire failure. It goes without saying that in addition to mentally rehearsing your response to driving emergencies, you should maintain your RV’s running gear, tires, wheels, steering system, air system, brakes, and all the other critical systems in safe working order.

Final thought

One final thought. All those miles of uneventful rolling on the interstate highways and backroads do nothing to prepare you for the startling realization of the effect of a very heavy vehicle veering out of control. It is a matter of mass energy departing from the normal trajectory of a road vehicle. Think about a 100-car freight train needing to make an emergency stop. Even with a robust and sophisticated emergency air brake system on the locomotives and all cars, it still takes miles to bring all that energy to a stop. The violence and destruction of a train derailment is a breathtaking sight.

Top-quality tires, good tire maintenance, and careful monitoring of tire age and wear will likely keep you from ever having to experience a tire blowout. But if you do have one, good mental conditioning and regular review of the procedures will be invaluable to ensure that you and your family survive it.


Randall Brink
Randall Brink
Randall Brink is an author hailing from Idaho. He has written many fiction and non-fiction books, including the critically acclaimed Lost Star: The Search for Amelia Earhart. He is the screenwriter for the new Grizzly Adams television series and the feature film Goldfield. Randall Brink has a diverse background not only as a book author, Hollywood screenwriter and script doctor, but also as an airline captain, chief executive, and Alaska bush pilot.


  1. As a Tire Forensic Expert I can say that it is very difficult to cause a modern radial to suddenly “Blowout”. Tires can fail from operating with long term underinflation. They can fail from a belt detachment that will take many hundreds of miles to grow large enough to cause the tire to disintigrate but I do not know how or what causes a tire to fail with no warning or no evidence of an impending failure. To me the term “Blowout” simply describes a tire disintration with the driver not being aware of the impending failure. Sidewall failure due to Run Low Flex failure I understand. Belt detachment after operating many hundreds or thousands of miles with the detachment growing from microscopic to a condition where many square inches of tire structure have been working apart, I understand, but short of explosives I do not understand how a tire structure suddenly comes apart with no signs of impending failure. I do understand that a driver may be distracted (cell phone, radio, TV, heated discussion etc) and not feel the change in steering wheel effort or vibration but that is not the same as have no warning.

  2. I just wonder how many of us have had a blow out and have been able to follow the instructions in the video? It’s a normal reaction to hit the brakes. There is very little to nil reaction time in these scenarios.

    The only way for a leisure rv travel to prepare for this event would be to practice on a track like in the video. I doubt there is any training school that teaches and practices this emergency protocol.

    It’s a tragic situation and I truly believe that speed is the factor in most of these fatal situations. I would hope that even those with a Class A diesel pusher would not drive 75 mph but stay at a more reasonable speed of 55 to 62 mph.

  3. It’s also important to install a steering stabilizer on your Class A motorhome so when you have a front blow out you have better control to bring the RV to a safe stop.

  4. On an RV forum I frequent I have many times read posts from others that drive their very large DPs or truck/trailers at speeds exceeding 80 mph and sometimes they even call out those of us who feel 60 to 65 is more appropriate as dangerous. I have also witnessed it many times as they pass me on the Interstates at these high rates of speed. I can only hope and pray, for their sake and that of others on the road with them, that their unlucky day never comes.

  5. When we bought our 45 footer new, we asked for the retrobands to be added. And we just replaced our steer tires and has them added again. It’s definitely worth the small amount of monies. This RV looks like a gasoline Front engine RV in the wreck. So sad the entire family and dog died.

  6. I do not understand how any motorhome owner can read stories like this and not get in line to put runflat devices such as Rettrobands on their steer tires. The average motorhome driver does not possess the skills or strength required to mitigate a worst-case steer tire blowout. While the incidence rate may be low, it’s not zero, and it can happen to anyone out there at any time.

  7. Luckily tire blowouts are not an everyday occurrence. You can’t really practice for a blown tire. When it happens you react instinctively. When I blew a tire on my fifthwheel I immediately hit the brakes. Right thing/ wrong thing? I believe because i had Superior hydraulic disc brakes I stopped in a VERY short distance and because of light traffic no one else was involved. A front steer on the left is going to react differently than a right tire. The best advice I’d give is have the tires inspected by a professional and replace earlier than later

    • I too am a BIG fan of the hydraulic disc brake conversions (if your rig doesn’t come with them, which most don’t). They make emergency stops possible!
      After reading jules comment I did a search for Retrobamd and watched their video. Very interesting, but designed for motorhomes specifically. Not sure if having Retroband installed negates the necessity to step ON the fuel in the event of a steering axle blowout as shown in the film on dealing with these blowouts.

  8. Forgot to mention we have tire pressure monitoring system on all our tires. Perhaps the front tire on the RV was losing pressure and then blew. I think it should be mandatory on every tire that touches the road, kind of like seat belts. Too many deaths from blown front tires. We haven’t had a blowout since we installed TPMS systems on our tires. Our last three vehicles TPMS was included in the build.

    On a 55 mph highway we drive 55, on a 60 mph highway we drive 60, on a 65 mph highway we drive 62, on a 70 mph highway we drive 62 on a 75 mph highway we drive 62 . . . . In city traffic we drive the same speed as the traffic around us, up to 70 mph, so we don’t become a problem with impatient drivers whipping around us.

    Every two hours max, we take a 15 minute break, and have done that for decades.

  9. Every time I start driving I practice hitting the brake controller, including the few occasions my wife drives. In nearly 4 decades of pulling trailers we’ve had one sway incident. Our Cougar, with a Blue Ox WDH, was approaching an overpass when the perfect storm hit on a day with perhaps a 10 mph wind. The camper went into a sway event. I immediately reached over with my left hand and hit the brake controller, bringing the trailer out of the sway. That was seven years ago, and Terry quit wondering why I practice hitting the controller every day. Plus, it lets you know you remembered to connect the brakes.

  10. I’m afraid there are many RV drivers who without any training get behind the wheel of their rig and keep the mindset they have when driving their car(toad). They display their lack of knowledge when they run off the pavement making a turn leaving the campground. When I see these type of drivers I just shake my head and think I’m glad I’m not on the road at the same time.

  11. Complacency and distraction are two major contributing components for many highway crashes as they effect the response to the initial problem: blown tire, sudden traffic change, weather, etc.

    That family was traveling to an ATV competition, and my understanding is they were going to stay at Loretta Lynn’s Family Ranch RV park in Hurricane Mills. Such a great loss. Also the son was engaged to be married.

    Besides keeping both hands on the wheel, keeping your speeds low and always being aware (I mean, driving on the highway can get repetitive) I have heard of a new (and expensive) product that sounds like what we might put in our bike tires. It’s like a runflat product that keeps the tire from blowing out -retroband I think it’s called. Insurance companies should consider discounts for having them if they already don’t.

    • Yep. Retrobands are a great product and installed at any NIRVC dealership (nationwide). They run a little less than $5k for both the front wheels (installed). They also include a lifetime warranty, so if you ever have a blow out, they will install a new Retroband for free in that tire. I always age out my front steers at 5 years. It’s a small price to pay to avoid an incident like this.

    • Retro Band is a product to AID in keeping control in the event of a “blow out.” It will not prevent a sudden loss of tire pressure. It keeps the tire on the wheel and also keeps the wheel/rim off the pavement. It is available exclusively from NIRVC, but there are other companies offering similar solutions for everyone’s consideration.

  12. Excellent article. We are about to hit the road again and this was a good reminder of the mental preparation for such a disaster


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