By Marco Beghetto. From the March 2005 issue.

Fifteen. As in 1 – 5. That’s how many truck drivers — out of 4055 polled — aced a continent-wide survey designed to find out how much they knew about brake adjustment.

The survey, obtained by Today’s Trucking, was conducted across North America by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) as part of Operation Air Brake in 2003. It found that a shockingly low number of drivers have a clear
understanding of air brakes and brake adjustment.

Only 15 drivers (0.37%) provided the correct responses to all 14 brake-related questions — which were in either multiple choice or true/false format. The CVSA says the responses reveal overwhelming misunderstanding about the importance of brake adjustment and correct methods to inspect adjustment on vehicles.

Only 192 of the drivers (0.47%) correctly identified all four of the conditions necessary to inspect brake adjustment properly. For example, in order to ensure
that correct air pressure is actually delivered to the brake chambers, the service brakes must be fully applied. The survey shows that 1211 drivers (out of more than
4000) correctly identified this.

“This simple requirement is possibly the most important condition that must exist for inspecting brake adjustment,” says the report. “And it is one that drivers should easily remember.”

More than half of the drivers (62%) identified incorrect methods of determining when brakes need to be adjusted. In fact, 1840 drivers (45%) said they rely on the “feel” of the brakes. Brake-related problems are the number-one cause of truck accidents in North America, as well as the main reason commercial vehicles get placed out of service.

It’s clear the industry still hasn’t gotten the message, says Andy Malion, president of Spectra Products Inc., a Toronto-based designer and manufacturer of stroke
indicators, Brake Safe and Brake Inspector.

“More than anything, what the survey shows is that drivers are simply not being educated,” Malion said in an interview with Today’s Trucking. “Some driving schools, and the industry in general, are not dealing with the seriousness of the problem.”THE AUTO SLACK MYTH
In what perhaps might be the most alarming part of the survey, 2179 drivers (53%) think that automatic slack adjusters never go out of adjustment.

While this might accurately reflect their experience in a well-maintained fleet environment, CVSA explains, it might also display a false sense of security regarding their vehicles.

“Fifty-eight percent of trucks put out of service for brake adjustment in last year’s Operation Air Brake had automatic slack adjusters,” Malion points out. “They’re not infallible.”

That may be news to some truckers who still refer to these devices as “self-maintaining” slack adjusters. Auto slacks, which automatically adjust brakes while the vehicle is operating, can get truck operators into trouble when they’re not properly greased and maintained, but also when they get the wrong kind of attention.

A common malpractice is when unqualified drivers and mechanics manually readjust auto slacks in the same way one would take a wrench to a manual slack adjuster. According to Chapter 8 of the Insurance Corporation Of British Columbia’s Driving Commercial Vehicles manual, “…once properly installed, automatic slack adjusters should not need manual adjustment. If an automatic slack adjuster is found to stroke beyond the maximum allowed, this usually
indicates that there are brake problems that need to be repaired by qualified
brake service personnel.”

To many people, an automatic slack adjuster is just another piece of iron you stick on a camshaft, says Allan Wright, a brake pro in Hope, B.C. who’s often called into Canadian and U.S. courtrooms as an expert witness on brake systems.

“But it’s actually a high-tech piece of equipment,” he says. “First off, you can damage it and strip the gears inside [by manually adjusting]. But, simply
readjusting does not solve the problem. Something else is usually wrong — sometimes with the foundation brake — and likely needs troubleshooting.”

Manually adjusted auto slacks have been known to slip back out of adjustment after just a few brake applications, and confused drivers that get caught down the road can’t understand why.

“Lots of drivers and mechanics think [manual slacks and auto slack adjusters] are the same thing,” says Alban Gaudet, director of maintenance and accident control for Armour Transportation in Moncton, N.B. “They think they’ve adjusted an [auto] slack adjuster properly, and go down the road a couple miles and are told they’re out of adjustment. It happens all the time.”

Gaudet says all his drivers are certified to adjust both manual and auto slack adjusters. That isn’t as common as it needs to be, however, and the issue of shade-tree mechanics fiddling with auto slacks has gotten so worrying that brake
makers have agreed to publish in U.S. CDL manuals warnings about the dangers of manually adjusting auto slacks.

“The manual adjustment of an automatic adjuster is generally masking a mechanical problem, and is not fixing it,” states the proposed warning, which is currently being reviewed by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

If there were an easier way for drivers to do a proper brake inspection, no doubt, many more would be diligent. But it’s almost impossible for a driver to conduct a
brake-service application and stroke measurement by himself — not without some MacGyver-like ingenuity to remotely hold the brake down in the cab, that is.

Assuming drivers properly go through the ministry-required circle check/brake inspection, far too many get by with simply eyeballing the stroke, or relying on the
OEM-provided paint strip on the pushrod (which usually gets replaced with a piece of hockey tape after it fades away) for proper stroke indication.

“Not long after the trailer goes in service, you can’t see those markers any more,” says Itimar Levine, maintenance manager at Winnipeg’s Bison Transport. “Even when the equipment is brand new, the marker gets covered with dirt that may [affect] judgement.”

It’s an industry-accepted standard that is past its time, says Malion. “Those markers may work fine in the labs, but in the real environment, they’re a joke,” he says.

At the 2000 North American Brake Safety Conference held at the Truck World show in Toronto, a general consensus was reached among brake professionals that more reliable stroke indication mechanisms should be made mandatory, Malion says. “That was five years ago, and not much has happened since.”

Malion acknowledges he has a personal stake in the movement — Brake Safe is one of many visual stroke indicators, while Brake Inspector is an innovative
electronic indicator and diagnostic tool that competes with MGM Brakes’ e-STROKE in a relatively uncharted market. But he says he would welcome more competition if it meant regulators get serious on stroke indication.

Levine, whose fleet is spec’d with stroke indicators, likes the idea of an indicator rule, but only if there were a proven industry standard. “Some of these [visual] stroke indicators look like some guy made it in his parents’ basement. Some are a joke,” he says.WHOSE FAULT IS IT ANYWAY?
Drivers are only responsible for checking the equipment, not for fixing it. While they must be able to recognize a problem and have it corrected before rolling through the gate, many times they’re held as the scapegoats for mistakes made in the shop.

“We point the finger at the driver because he’s the one that takes the thing down the road, but it’s the entire system that’s the problem — the driver, the carrier, and
the mechanic,” says Dale Holman, an accident-reconstructionist and brake expert contracted to maintain the brake systems of many large Ontario fleets.

While drivers get slapped with much of the blame for the out-of-adjustment crisis, mechanics — many of whom are woefully under-trained on brake systems — escape criticism, says Holman.

“We have mechanics who shouldn’t be allowed to own a wrench,” he says. “Over 50% of a mechanic’s apprenticeship is spent on engines and drivetrain, parts that are heavily covered by warranties anyway. Only 10% is spent on brakes and suspensions. In the real world they’ll spend most of their time working on things they’re under-trained for.”

Holman says that drivers and mechanics must be brought together by fleets to strengthen communication regarding brake issues. “We have a program where we train mechanics, then train drivers, and then we train them together,” says
Holman. “Now these guys are starting to discuss the situation the way it needs to be.”

Until carriers make that commitment, information bounced to and from uninformed people will exacerbate the myths and misconceptions on brake safety, Holman says – echoing a point also highlighted in the CVSA survey.

Despite the devastating consequences that can result from out-of-adjustment brakes, it’s still an issue that takes a backseat in the trucking industry. In B.C. — where adjustment shortcomings could spell tragedy on some of that province’s head-tilting grades — there’s no shortage of sad stories.

“I would say almost every one of the spectacular [crashes] in B.C. involve brake adjustment,” says Wright.

Still, there’s a dozen other items the industry and government want to talk about instead, says Holman. “The big news in the industry these days is emissions and
how [pollution] is going to kill people 10, 20, even 100 years from now if we don’t do something about it,” he says. “If you have a brake system that fails today, it kills people today. And they’re just as dead.”

Malion predicts the day is coming when brake safety will be a topic that’s talked about as much as emissions, fuel, and driver shortages. Mounting numbers of high-profile, brake-related accidents in the U.S. — and the liability issues attached to them — will have a ripple effect the industry will find hard to ignore.

“Sadly, sometimes it takes such things to change the status quo,” he says. “But I think that change is coming.”

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