Stop and Think: Strategies to avoid brake violations

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TORONTO, Ont. — An unannounced Brake Safety Day enforcement initiative by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) on April 25 saw 13.8% of inspected commercial vehicles placed out of service for brake violations.

More than 11,500 vehicles were inspected on the day, including 1,457 in Canada. Canada’s out-of-service rate was slightly better than in the U.S., with 12.4% of trucks taken off the road here for brake violations compared to 14% in the U.S.

Despite steady enforcement initiatives such as Brake Safety Day, a part of the CVSA’s Operation Airbrake Program, brake-related defects continue to be a leading cause of out-of-service violations. But fleet maintenance departments have a direct impact on a fleet’s violation rate, since routine maintenance can prevent many of the defects found at roadside.

We caught up to brake guru Kevin Pfost — formally technical services coordinator, Bendix Spicer Foundation Brake — for his insights into brake maintenance best practices.


Today’s Trucking: Why is it that brake violations continue to be a leading cause of roadside violations, and what can fleet maintenance departments do to avoid adding to the statistics?

Pfost: It seems strange after all these years that we still have a high difficulty with brake maintenance and brakes out of spec’. Here’s the thing I tell everybody: If you bring a truck into a garage, it takes about 10 minutes to go through and actually measure brake stroke.

Most maintenance departments will tell you they don’t have enough time. But when you bring a truck in for any reason, take that extra five to 10 minutes to measure brake stroke while you have the truck in there. If you have a truck that’s out of spec’, stroke-wise, at least you catch it before it leaves.

Most mechanics, they don’t even look at the brakes when they bring the truck in for another reason. I think when they bring it in for any reason at all, they should still measure brake stroke.


Today’s Trucking: With air disc brakes becoming more prevalent in the market, should we not see a correlating decrease in brake-related out-of-service violations?

Pfost: Yes, air disc brakes are having less violations. I haven’t heard of many violations as of yet. Most of the time, when they go through the scales, (when inspectors see) they’re disc brakes they’re waving the guys through. So that cuts down on brake violations.

The other thing is, people like disc brakes because the pushrod is internal to the caliper. Now they can’t measure brake stroke, right? The biggest violation you’ll find is brakes out of spec’.


Today’s Trucking: So it sounds like a fleet that’s having trouble with brake violations could solve them pretty much completely by spec’ing air disc brakes.

Pfost: You know what, some of them are doing that for that reason.


Today’s Trucking: But that doesn’t mean disc brakes are maintenance-free, does it?

Pfost: Here’s the maintenance requirements for a drum brake: you have to grease it, you’re measuring brake stroke, you have a lot more components in a drum brake, so you have more chances of failure or mis-adjustment.

In a disc brake, your inspection is visual. You’re looking for cracks – cracks in the rotors, or you look up between the wheels and the caliper. You’re looking where the pads sit.  You’re looking for mismatched pad thicknesses. Then you’ll move the caliper, check the caliper movement on the guide pins. You want to make sure there’s running clearance. If there isn’t, that can tell you (that) you have a guide pin seized up.

So, they’re not maintenance-free. People get it in their heads that they’re maintenance-free. You still visually have to inspect this, you still have to listen for air leaks, and you’ll also have to check for caliper movement. Grab the caliper and slide it in and out of the wheel to make sure it moves freely.


Today’s Trucking: I have noticed, especially since the introduction of reduced stopping distance (RSD) drum brakes, there has been a lot of emphasis from Bendix on the importance of swapping out like for like friction material when doing brake jobs. Why is this so important, and is the message getting through to technicians, or does it need to be reinforced?

Pfost: I think it needs to be reinforced. The reason we tell you to replace friction material with the same material is because we have to meet the stopping distance rule by the government. Aftermarketers do not have to meet that rule. If you can make friction in your garage and put it on a shoe, in the aftermarket you can actually sell that. OEMs, we have to keep the same quality and same stopping distance in our friction. Aftermarket friction has no oversight at all.

The other thing, too, that I’ve heard from people is that when they buy aftermarket friction they don’t get as much mileage as they did with OEM friction.


Today’s Trucking: How important is ongoing brake training for technicians? Do fleet maintenance departments offer enough of this?

Pfost: I do a lot of technician training myself. What I find is, especially on the disc brake side right now, everybody’s kind of leery about (the technology). But it’s not a new product. The disc brakes on a truck are no different than the disc brakes on a car, other than they weigh about 100 times more.

So, the inspections are the same. But, our products are changing all the time. So I believe that technicians need all the training they can get. There are a lot of things they don’t run into every day, so they forget about it.


Today’s Trucking: Are there certain knowledge gaps you’ve encountered while training technicians, or issues that are widely misunderstood when it comes to brake maintenance?

Pfost: When I do a disc brake training class, I start talking about different things like brake adjustments on disc brakes. On our disc brakes you adjust them ‘til they make contact with the rotor and then back them off until you hear three audible clicks. On a lot of other ones, you back them off half a turn like you do on a drum brake. Technicians didn’t understand it’s three audible clicks – they thought they had to back it off half a turn.

Also, during the inspection process, there are a lot of guys that have no clue that they need to check the caliper for slide-ability while they’re doing their preventive maintenance.

On the drum brake side, look behind the clevis pin. Many guys will not spray any lube on a clevis pin. If the clevis pin seizes, that could be a brake-out-of-adjustment failure. A lot of guys look at me like a deer in the headlights and say, “Wait a minute, you need to lube these?” Yes, you need to make sure that the clevis pins are free.


Today’s Trucking: There seem to be a lot of training tools available today, including Bendix’s Online Brake School. But are maintenance managers doing enough to keep their technicians trained?

Pfost: There are a lot of guys that, when I get out there and I start talking to them about our online school, they’re amazed we have one. And I’m amazed that they don’t know about it. I think we really need to stress to technicians that there are free online schools – and they’re good schools.

This is what I tell fleet managers who tell me they don’t have the time to train their technicians: I always tell them, everybody breaks for lunch, right? One day a month, as a fleet manager, log into our brake school, and when these guys break for lunch, buy them pizza and pop. Put a monitor in the breakroom. Plug your laptop into it and do one short class.

It’s 10 minutes, 15 minutes max. Play that during their lunch while they’re eating pizza and drinking soda. I’m telling you right now – if you put food out, they’re coming! This is a win-win.

  • The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s Brake Safety Week runs Sept. 16-22.


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John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking,, TruckTech, Transport Routier, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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