Could a 65 Cent Piece of Plastic Have Saved Two Students' Lives?

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Could a tiny piece of plastic have saved two UW-Eau Claire's students' lives? One manufacturer says yes.

It was nearly a year ago that a semi tire flew off the truck, crashed through the windshield of a van, killed two students and devastated a campus.

Six college guys, piled into a van, headed for spring break...

“We were anticipating the warm weather, the Florida beach," says Pat Senzig.

112 miles from Florida, those plans were shattered like the windshield of their van.

"We were cranking the country, had the windows down, enjoying the weather and that's when it hit," says Ryan Wirth.

It was a semi truck tire. The truck was headed the opposite direction on the Georgia interstate.

"When they pulled Buchmeier out of the van and put the blanket over him, it was really hard. You didn't want to believe it," Senzig says.

It killed Jason Buchmeier. Jason Schulter died days later.

But some say there's a way to prevent those tragedies with one simple piece of plastic.

"They're just sort of ignoring it," says Paul Picotte who runs a truck parts company.

It is a wheel-check: A bright plastic piece that fits around the lug nuts on a tire. The ends all point one way and if one is loose, it's easy for a driver to spot.

"They're still reluctant to spend any more money than they feel they absolutely have to," Picotte says.

The cost for one wheel-check: 65 cents. For an 18-wheeler, that's $117. But, we couldn't find any on the trucks at an Eau Claire truck stop on I-94. And none of the truck drivers we talked to even knew existed.

"It really takes no effort," says Dean Brown of Lamers Bus Company.

Lamers started putting wheel-checks on its school buses after one lost a wheel a couple years ago.

"It gives you a good confident feeling with those things on that you're not going to have an incident," Brown says.

It’s an incident that killed a doctor near Milwaukee and a 31-year-old man in the state of Washington. The truck's tire ended up resting just a few feet from his van.

"Before this happened we'd never heard of this before and since it's happened we heard more of these types of incidents than you can believe," says Jason Buchmeier’s Mom Lisa.

The National Transportation Safety Board estimates trucks lose about 1000 wheels a year. But, it only took one to take the lives of two UWEC students.

"Yeah, I’m angry, for sure. It could've been avoided definitely," Wirth says.

"It didn't just happen to us. It happens all over the place,” Senzig says. “Anyone who drives out on the road has the possibility they could get struck with a tire. You just never know.”

The wheel-checks are made in Canada. Stephanie Cox is the vice president of the company. She says they sell about three million a year, mostly north of the border. But, there's more money on the line there.

The fine for losing a tire in Ontario can be as high as $50,000. The Wisconsin State Patrol says here the ticket would likely be between $160 and $186.

The American Trucking Associations says there are several factors besides loose lug nuts that cause semi truck tires to come off.

Vice President of Public Affairs Clayton Boyce says members are very concerned about tires coming off. He says they continue to work on ways to fight the problem.

The Associations have not yet come out with a public opinion on the wheel-check.

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