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‘The key to prevention is a safe driver’ – Deardorff ‘We have a long way to go’

TORONTO, Ont. - Transportation experts from across North America and as far away as Australia gathered in Toronto last month for the first North American Brake Safety Conference, looking to discuss th...


TORONTO, Ont. – Transportation experts from across North America and as far away as Australia gathered in Toronto last month for the first North American Brake Safety Conference, looking to discuss the problems related to out-of-service and defective truck brakes and to identify potential solutions to the nagging issue.

The 110 delegates packed the conference hall to listen to a line-up of speakers that included experts representing drivers, carriers, equipment manufacturers, regulatory bodies, law enforcement and the scientific community. The sheer number of delegates – not to mention the fact there was a need for the conference in the first place – was evidence of the scope of the brake problem.

Ontario Trucking Association president David Bradley set the tone for the conference in his opening remarks to the delegates. Bradley stated that many people in the trucking industry are becoming skeptical and weary of brake regulations and inspection blitzes, and hoped the conference delegates could uncover new ways to improve brake safety without further “impeding commerce.”

“The persistence of high out-of-service rates has contributed to the public’s negative perception of the trucking industry,” Bradley said. “When the media reports high out-of-adjustment rates and high out-of-service rates after an inspection blitz, it’s a black eye for the industry.”

On the other hand, Saad Rafi of the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators pointed out that out-of-service rates due to brake defects have been declining in recent years, mostly due to initiatives like Operation Air Brake and other targeted inspection blitzes. He added, however, that brake problems still account for 51 per cent of all out-of-service trucks in North America.

“I don’t think we can deny we have a long way to go,” Rafi said.

Frank Navin, a University of British Columbia civil engineering professor and an expert in accident reconstruction, presented the scientific take on brake safety. Navin pointed out that 50 per cent of truck collisions involve speeding. Furthermore, Navin believes truck drivers do not know their real margin for safety on the highway. “If they did, they wouldn’t roll over and get in accidents as much,” he argued.

Using data from numerous truck equipment tests, Navin demonstrated how the amount of braking power available to the driver falls off as the brakes fall further and further out of adjustment. For example, he said, an empty three-axle truck that locks up its brakes on dry pavement has barely a one per cent chance of exceeding its designed stopping distance if the brakes are 100 per cent in adjustment. With 75 per cent of the brakes in-adjustment, the chance of exceeding the stopping distance rises to four per cent, and six per cent if the truck is loaded. With just 50 per cent of the brakes in adjustment, however, the chance of exceeding the designed stopping distance jumps to 80 per cent. For a loaded B-train with 50 per cent of its brakes, the odds are 99 per cent.

“So virtually no loaded truck with half its brakes in adjustment can stop properly. You might as well have anchors on them,” Navin said. “And that’s under ideal conditions. You get a loaded truck with bald tires on wet pavement and it would be the same as stopping on wet ice.”

While there is an obvious need to tackle the issues surrounding truck brakes, Peter Hurst, director of transport compliance for Saskatchewan Highways and Transportation, pointed out that there are regulatory problems hindering that effort. One of these is a lack of uniform regulations from one jurisdiction to another. This leads to inconsistent fines and levels of enforcement that, in turn, leads to inconsistent compliance, he said.

One area of particular concern, said Hurst, is a huge disparity in fines.

“I’d like to pose a question to regulators,” Hurst said. “Is a $100 fine sufficient for a truck with virtually no brakes? In some jurisdictions, the fine is $35.”

Another problem is deciding where to lay the blame for out-of-adjustment brakes, Hurst said. While drivers are typically charged for brake defects on their trucks, Hurst said that approach doesn’t get to the root of the problem. “Should drivers be held responsible for brakes on trailers that are owned and maintained by the carrier or shipper?”

“The key to prevention is a safe driver,” argued Deardorff. “A good driver can make a bad set of brakes good, and a bad driver can make a good set of brakes bad.”

Echoing Bradley, Deardorff suggested that there is room for “legitimate discussion” regarding current brake safety standards. He pointed out that there is no reliable data that directly points to brakes as the cause of most truck crashes, and that there are no mandated manufacturing standards for the durability, reliability or maintainability of brakes.

“Compliance should be leading us to fewer accidents and fewer deaths. But is it?” Deardorff asked.

The lack of reliable data surrounding the role that brakes play in truck crashes was also a problem cited by Lt. Lisa Irwin of the Michigan State Police, who offered a law enforcement perspective. Because the problem has not yet been adequately defined, she said, it is impossible to pinpoint an acceptable level of compliance. A more troubling problem, though, is the fact many operators use the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s 20 per cent out-of-service cut-off as a baseline, she said.

“If we only penalize operators for out-of-service and not for out-of-adjustment, it sends a message that anything below the maximum average is where you want to be,” explained Irwin. “So operators say, ‘If I’m below 20 per cent, I’m good.’

“We need to impress upon people the message of 100 per cent compliance. All parties should be trained to strive to keep brakes to a 100 per cent compliance standard, not just to below the out-of-service standard.”

From the outset, the delegates agreed that no “quick fixes” or “silver bullet” solutions to the brake safety issue were likely to come out of the conference. And given the fact the delegates represented a wide variety of groups involved in the trucking industry, each with its own agenda and interests to protect, reaching a consensus on any given issue was difficult at best.

In spite of that, a number of potential solutions were identified in the breakout sessions held over the course of the two days, where delegates got a chance to discuss and debate the issues in small groups. Among these were more truck-specific signs on highways that take into account a truck’s margin for safety, ongoing brake training for everyone in the “compliance chain,” from drivers to carrier CEOs, and tighter standards on remanufactured brake parts.

The delegates also called for even more roadside inspections, tougher fines for out-of-adjustment and out-of-service violations, and more truck accident data that focuses specifically on brakes.

Conference co-chairman John Meed said that the suggestions put forward by the delegates would be included in a conference summary that will be sent to various industry associations and government agencies for feedback and further discussion.

There are currently no plans in place to hold a second conference, Meed said. n


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