Is your ABS working? Many are not

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TORONTO, Ont. – One in every three trailers and one in 10 tractors are operating without working ABS warning systems, a recent study by the U.S. Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) has discovered, and the biggest problem tends to be missing or inoperative warning lamps.

The findings presented during a recent meeting of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA), which sets vehicle inspection standards across North America, were based on a random sample of 1,000 commercial vehicles studied in Pennsylvania, Washington, California and Ohio.

“That’s pretty stunning,” said Rolf Vanderzwaag of the Ontario Trucking Association, who was one of the officials who heard the results for the first time.

The research initiative had been launched in response to anecdotal reports of problem warning systems – and the reports appear to be well founded.

“About one in four ABS lamps were inoperative, while 23 per cent of post-2001 power units were missing trailer-related warning lamps, or (had) lamps that were inoperable,” the study concluded, referring to some of the specific problems.

Researchers also found an increasing trend of active faults in power units built within the past four years. “This indicates that the enhanced driver interface may not be utilized as intended by the regulations.”

In-dash warning lights have needed to indicate trailer-related ABS faults since March 1, 2001, as a way to warn drivers about the potential of locking wheels.

As simple as it sounds, it took a massive engineering effort to find a way to light the little bulb in the first place.

When the U.S. government first announced plans to mandate the warning lights, the trucking industry already had uses for each of the seven pins in the connectors that feed electricity between tractors and trailers.

There was no space for the signal to power the warning light, and many industry officials wondered whether there would be a need for a second power cord.

In the end, the solution involved developing a communications standard (PLC4TRUCKS) that allows signals to hitch a ride on one of the wires fed with a constant source of power.

The resulting “multiplexing” systems allow the cab to communicate with a litany of trailer-based systems, ranging from ABS to onboard scales and reefer units.

The recent study found that problem sensors, controllers or ABS computers were blamed for lamps that glowed regardless of whether a problem existed on four per cent of tractors and eight per cent of trailers.

Such problems could be caused by wiring problems on the circuit that powers the lamp. In addition to that, 12 per cent of tractors and 29 per cent of trailers could be oblivious to an actual fault because of missing or inoperable lamps.

“Now they have to decide what to do about this,” Vanderzwaag said.

Authors of the study have asked for the warning systems to be added to the checklists during CVSA Level 1 inspections, and want a DOT policy statement to encourage enforcement.

“In the current inspection procedure, (the warning system) is sort of an afterthought,” admitted Luke Loy of the FMCSA’s Vehicle and Roadside Operations Division, who presented the findings.

“It’s not emphasized too much and I don’t believe it’s really checked…We’re thinking some additional attention needs to be there.”

Still, Loy said it’s unlikely that the problem warning systems would ever be added to the out-of-service criteria that can actually ground defective equipment. “The backup systems are there,” he said, noting that equipment without ABS still has functioning brakes.

But with an inactive system, drivers may not be aware of the potential jackknife situation that can come if wheels lock up during a panic stop.

The report also indicates a need for more education about where lamps should be located.

“It was not uncommon for the parking brake icon, ABS icon, and automatic traction control (ATC) icon to be located adjacent to one another on the dashboard and of the same amber color, with only the characteristics in the middle of the circle different, and thus sometimes hard to distinguish.”

The location of the warning lights can be found in a number of locations.

In Peterbilts, for example, the lamps are in the centre of the dash, above the steering wheel, International shows it in the vertical light bar in the right instrument cluster, with the trailer icon in the left cluster, while Freightliner puts the icon in the far right of the light panel above the speedometer. Loy, meanwhile, leaves little doubt that the study is large enough to be taken seriously.

At 1,000 vehicles, he said, “it seems like a pretty good sample size.”

NHTSA puts brakes on shorter stops plan

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s plan to shorten the allowable stopping distances for tractor-trailers continues to be bogged down in the regulatory process. The latest delay in unveiling the new stopping distances – expected to be as much as 30 per cent shorter than those in place today – is being linked to a “cost-benefit” analysis of the new standards. They were originally slated to be introduced in an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (ANPRM) in 2003.

But the addition of the cost-benefit analysis will pave the way for the rules to be unveiled as a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, which could become a regulation more quickly than an ANPRM, explained Jim Britell of NHTSA’s Office of Vehicle Safety Research.

While NHTSA can set requirements for stopping distances, it will be up to the trucking industry to develop a way of doing it.

Tractor-trailers with a Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of 52,000 lb. currently need to stop from speeds of 60 mph within a distance of 355 feet – a requirement easily met by either size of brakes. But problems emerge if the allowable distances are shortened to 248 feet, since trucks equipped with 15×4 brakes on steer axles will only come to a rest within 244 feet. A 16.5×5 brake on a steer axle will bring the truck to a stop within 206 feet.

Sources close to the discussions, however, admit certain configurations, including some cement trucks, may find it particularly difficult to meet the new standards.

As for potential changes to stopping distances in Canada, Transport Canada tends to mimic manufacturing requirements set in the U.S., but has yet to introduce any similar legislation.

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