Birds are chirping, the grass is green, and the cherry blossoms have emerged in all their delicate glory. You know what this means – yes, the season of bad car loading is upon us once again.
I thought of this recently as I spied a kayak lashed to the tail of a motorhome on Interstate 75. Based on the inviolable laws of aerodynamics, a kayak should be tied down lengthwise, so it presents the smallest frontal area and aligns with the air flowing over your vehicle. But the owner had tied this one vertically, with its bow and stern projecting into the wind-blast.
Minutes later, I came upon a pickup truck loaded with what appeared to be the entire contents of a decent-sized home. A washing machine, sofa, lamps, a rusted muffler, several chain saws and more were piled high in the pickup bed, a teetering ziggurat of possessions, restrained by a single, frayed length of waterski rope.
Many of us can't load a car to save our lives. Soon, millions of drivers will be hitting the highway for long-awaited summer trips – and hoping not to get taken out by an airborne picnic cooler, a toolbox that falls out of a pickup or a canoe tied down with kitchen twine.
The highway can be a dangerous place. One summer, I was nearly taken out when a cast-iron engine block rolled off a trailer ahead of me. Another time, I watched a poorly tied aluminum fishing boat lift off a Buick and launch itself into oncoming traffic.
Bad loaders fall into several categories. One rather large group is made up of people who failed physics class, where you learn about mass centralization, polar moment and dynamic instability. These are drivers who don't realize that loading 400 kilograms of cargo into the tail end of a van overloads the rear suspension, and creates longitudinal instability (with all the weight in its tail, a vehicle is primed for a game of high-speed Crack the Whip).
Another group is made up of Reverse Wright Brothers – drivers who have no concept whatsoever of aerodynamics, and how much force moving air can generate. They study their rooftop load in their driveway, lash it down with lines the size of dental floss, and hit the highway. Frontal area? What's that?
I once spotted a woman on the Queen Elizabeth Way with a kayak loaded on her roof at a sharp angle, generating massive forces that could probably have torn the rack off her vehicle. Although only a mind reader could know why she'd tied down the kayak this way, it appeared that the angled mounting made the tie-downs easier to reach.
Another subset of bad loaders is a group I call the C & U: Careless and Unlucky. They may understand how to load a vehicle properly, but they still mess things up – like my hang gliding buddy who piled six gliders on the roof of his van, and used only two tie-down straps that encircled the entire load. He knew he should put on more straps, but reasoned that he was only driving a few miles. He got away with it until he rear-ended another car – and watched all six gliders launch off the roof like air-to-air missiles departing the wing of a fighter jet. The end result: four damaged cars and six totalled gliders.
Unfortunately, I must include myself in C & U group, thanks to a long-ago event. The incident began with the purchase of a Thule roof box, which was essential for a family with two small children and an old-school Honda Civic. Unlike the Thule cargo boxes of today, ours didn't have mounting clamps that automatically adjust to your roof rack. I placed the box on the roof of the Honda and began measuring to see where I should drill the holes for the box's stainless-steel mounting brackets.
As I drilled the final hole, a child screamed in our back yard, and I raced off to deal with the problem, which required me to head into the house for disinfectant and a Band-Aid.
While I struggled with the childhood medical crisis, my wife and her friend returned from a walk, unaware that I was in the house. They drove off in the Civic for a sightseeing tour, not realizing that the new Thule box sitting on the roof wasn't actually fastened down yet. Surprisingly, the box stayed in place for several blocks, but as my wife turned onto Bloor St., centrifugal force finally took over, launching the Thule through the air like a grey plastic coffin. It landed on the sidewalk with a boom and slid past several surprised pedestrians.
No one was hurt, but my hard-won reputation as an automotive load-master took a major hit. My reputation was further dented the next year when I drove into a motel with a low-hanging entrance, forgetting that we had two bicycles and a hang glider on the roof. This cost us a new windshield, a roof repair, and about $300 in bicycle parts. The cost to my pride was harder to calculate.
Otherwise, my car loading has been faultless. I have successfully loaded and carried everything from lumber to mattresses to an ultralight airplane (I had to create a custom trailer for it). My knots have never failed, my ratcheting cargo straps stayed tight, and nothing has fallen off. And to my wife, who comes from a family known for brilliant musicianship and sheer mechanical ineptitude, I am still a cut above, if only because her father set the bar extremely low. Her dad lost most of the family's possessions when they blew off the roof on a trip to Montreal in the 1960s.
Oh well. Summer trip season is here again. I'm glad. But you know what they say: "Warning – Bad Load Ahead."
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