DRIVERS & BRAKES: IS THIS GAP FILLABLE?

Rolf Lockwood

Unpopular. That’s what I may be as these 700 words or so hit the street. So be it. It’s a risk I’ll take, because my opinions about truck drivers and brake adjustment seem to have been vindicated.

Simply, I don’t think drivers should touch their trucks’ brakes. Ever.

And it appears they wouldn’t know what the heck to do with them anyway. A survey of drivers done by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance two years ago (see This week’s online weekly feature Them’s the Brakes) found that a pitifully small number of drivers — less than 1 percent — understand truck brakes well enough to adjust them properly.

That’s the vindication part: if drivers by and large don’t understand brakes, they plainly shouldn’t go near them. You want liability problems?

So what’s going on here? Is it lousy and/or insufficient training? Are today’s truck-braking systems too complex or otherwise difficult? Is a massive majority of drivers stupid? Or is it something else altogether?

The answer is probably ‘yes’ to the first question. Not unlike other industries, and I can say that from personal experience in the sometimes dangerous world of steel-making as well as a two-year stint on a cross-industry engineering magazine, a good line is often talked about training but very few companies really pull it off terribly well. Some don’t even try. And it’s brutally obvious that automatic slack adjusters are not well understood at all. The latter just has to be a training issue.

You’d probably have to say ‘yes’ to the second question as well. While not inherently complex, the modern S-cam brake is an ornery, unforgiving piece of machinery that seems naturally opposed to staying within accepted adjustment tolerances for no longer than 13 minutes or 11 miles, whichever comes first. Now combine that distressing fact of life with another one — namely, that drivers have no wish to crawl under their trailer on a good day in a paved yard, let alone a bad day on dirt. I’ve never seen any driver do it.

Are drivers stupid? Hardly, but here’s the real point, one I’ve made before: today’s drivers are not mechanically adept. True, it doesn’t really take a hell of a lot of skill to adjust a brake, but you have to be willing to face a cruddy undercarriage with wrench in hand and for some folks that’s going to be a daunting challenge. Especially if they don’t understand the mechanism in the first place.

The thing is, to ride an old editorial horse, we’ve dipped into a new pool of drivers who did not grow up fixing stuff on farms as in days gone by. Nor are they ex-military types who drove tanks and things in the course of preparing to protect my butt and yours. Farm and army are just not our key driver sources any longer, and they’ve been steadily dwindling in importance for the last two decades.

Today’s driver used to be an insurance salesman in Sarajevo before Yugoslavia was battered into non-existence. Or he was a Canadian Pacific pilot who lost his job in one of history’s great mergers. Maybe he was a computer programmer in India’s Punjab region. And if he’s young and homegrown, he’s likely a suburban 22-year-old who rented “Smokey and the Bandit” once too often. For that matter, maybe he’s a she who used to be a financial consultant.

Increasingly, they’re not ‘truckers’ the way we usually think of truckers. They don’t have — and don’t want — grease under their finger nails. And we can’t train our way into changing them. So, I contend, they shouldn’t touch the truck’s brakes and we as an industry shouldn’t demand it.

Which leaves us with a gap. I’d like to think that somewhere out there is an automatic slack adjuster that’s even simpler to work than what we presently have, or a training regime that will make an auto slack’s use easy and routine. I’d also like carriers to rush to embrace the disc brake, which would provide a sizeable performance bonus as well as operational simplicity.

Either of those options would be cheaper, and infinitely easier, than teaching mechanically inept drivers to do what they very, very clearly don’t want to do.

Rolf Lockwood

Rolf Lockwood is editor emeritus of Today's Trucking and a regular contributor to Trucknews.com.

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