If you’re like most drivers, you aren’t excited about this year’s Brake Safety Week (Aug. 20-26), which is hosted by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA). After all, vehicle inspections are like visits to the dentist – about the best you can hope for is getting through it painlessly. No one looks forward to the experience.
Like a visit to the dentist, however, Brake Safety Week is about awareness. The focus of this year’s event will be brake lining and pad violations, and that’s a problem for most professional drivers who may have never actually laid eyes on those items. Like molars, we just assume they are present and trouble-free, until they aren’t.
For truck owners, brakes are the barrier between your business and the high costs of collision repairs and potential litigation. They are a crucial, and often ignored, component of the vehicle that makes your living. The focus should be on maximizing their effectiveness rather than getting through an annual inspection safety program.
Many drivers think the CVSA is just another government agency to contend with, perhaps an arm of the DOT or the FMCSA. It’s not. The CVSA, like the name says, is truly an alliance. Its members include law enforcement agencies but also manufacturers of vehicles and components, trucking companies and other parties with an interest. Groups of these members meet frequently to decide on inspection criteria and methodology.
CSVA focus groups answer questions about how inspections are conducted and what conditions constitute a violation. They decide the difference between a minor violation and one that puts the vehicle out of service (OOS). They provide guidance and training to carriers on how to maintain vehicles; to drivers on how to inspect and when to report issues and to law enforcement officials on what to look for and what to do when they find a violation.
So, when you get pulled around behind the scale for an inspection, you’ll be experiencing something developed thorough a process that might have included the carrier you work for, the group you belong to, people from the school you attended.
The issue with brakes, of course, is that they are critical to safe operation. A typical 18-wheeler has 10 brake devices, so if one of them isn’t working properly it represents 10% of that vehicle’s braking capacity. In the wrong situation, even that much loss in braking power can be deadly.
To make the issue worse, many, if not most, drivers don’t regularly inspect their brakes, even if doing so is a part of a pre-trip inspection. Doing so entails crawling under the vehicle with a flashlight to inspect brake drums or rotors that are located behind the tires, possibly removing inspection plugs or access panels, and then measuring shoe or pad depth, drum or rotor wear and, finally, adjustment. Who does all of that?
Consider the private automobile. There are some remaining mechanical folks who might change their own brake shoes or pads, but most people have never even seen the components of the brakes on their vehicles. The only way they know something is wrong is when a tire technician notices something and tells them, or else when they hear a strange noise or feel something different when they step on the brake. Those that become truck drivers often have the same experience with their trucks.
For these reasons, Brake Safety Week often uncovers vehicle safety issues the driver never knew about.
Even if you don’t regularly inspect brake components under the truck, there are things you can do to improve your chances of passing an inspection during brake week. One is to have the professionals do it. If your truck is going in for a PM or really for any purpose, ask the shop to check the condition and adjustment of the brakes. If you pay for this service, it could cost you a few more dollars, but you’ll know that your brakes are in tip top shape and as safe as possible, even if you aren’t selected for inspection.
You can also pay attention to the other components of the braking system so that you catch problems before the nice officer under your tractor does. If, for example, an inspector can hear air hissing from a leak, you can hear it too. On level ground, chock the wheels, put on the tractor brake but release the trailer brake. Then, walk around, listening for leaks. Then apply the trailer brake while releasing the tractor brake and walk again.
In the cab, hold down the brake pedal and watch the air pressure gauges. You shouldn’t lose more than four pounds of air pressure after you initially depress the pedal. Put your window down and listen. You definitely shouldn’t hear air hissing from outside. Then, pump the brakes until you hear the low pressure warning buzzer. It should come on at 60 psi. After this, keep pumping the brakes until the tractor and trailer protection valves pop out. It should happen before the system gets below 20 psi.
Most trucks these days are equipped with automatic slack adjusters, but you can help ensure they are in adjustment. While you’re driving, you seldom press the brake pedal hard unless you find yourself in a lot of emergency stop situations. While parked, press the pedal down firmly to activate the brakes, then release. Repeat six to eight times. That will help get all of your brakes in adjustment.
If you identify any issues, or if you notice any problems such as the truck pulling to one side or making grinding noises when the brakes are applied, get your truck into the shop.
Getting pulled in for inspection takes up your time and there’s always the risk of a violation, but by keeping your truck in top shape and doing regular pre and post-trip inspections, you can increase your chances of a pleasant experience during Brake Safety Week – and remain safer EVERY week.
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.