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What causes a jackknife?

Imagine driving on the highway, minding your own business, when a semi ahead of you suddenly loses control. The trailer swings around, destabilizing it. It blocks the road, and that causes you to get into an accident. What could have caused this to happen?

A jackknife is when a tractor trailer's trailer ends up at a sharp angle to the tractor. The vehicle and trailer form a kind of "V" when this takes place, most commonly due to the wheels being locked up. If the trailer is empty or has a light load, it's more likely to swing out of position if the wheels lock up.

There are a number of reasons for a jackknife. First, if the tractor real wheels lock while the front of the trailer continues forward, it has to find somewhere to go; this results in a spin like most single-unit vehicles. The difference with a jackknife is that the trailer has to move sideways; this is more common if the rear wheels lock up despite the front wheels continuing forward. The trailer typically swings around 180 degrees to the left or right when this happens.

Another reason for a jackknife is if there are heavy winds or a side force pressing on the trailer. If the rear wheels lock up and a force is pressing on the trailer, the trailer will be more likely to swing in the direction that force is pushing. Most minor jackknives can be recovered from, particularly when they are under a 15-degree angle, but those that extend beyond that are nearly impossible to recover from, resulting in an accident.

If you're caught in the aftermath of a jackknife, you're not alone. Many people are injured this way each year, and an insurance claim could help you get the money you need.

Source: Marules, "Tractor Trailer Jackknife," accessed Dec. 22, 2016

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