I first drove a truck in the fall of 1970, shortly after graduating college. In addition to my primary responsibilities as a timber buyer for a lumber mill in northeastern Pennsylvania, I was also designated as a “fill-in driver” hauling wood chips to a paper mill in Deposit, NY. I still have flashbacks of that vehicle's miserable stopping ability. Runaway truck stories abounded in the hilly country I traveled. We were wary of stopping power limitations and thus approached intersections and mountain grades with a combination of caution, fear and respect. Unfortunately though, defective truck brakes were the cause of many tragic highway deaths.

What really bothers me, though, is that after 35 years of truck innovation, design and safety improvements, defective brakes are still such a problem for our industry.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently released a preliminary report of a grain truck/school bus crash that took place in May 2001 just off Interstate 540 in northwestern Arkansas.

The southbound truck exited the Interstate and was unable to stop at the base of the exit ramp. The fully loaded rig entered the intersection and collided with the right side of a bus transporting children to school.

The NTSB report indicated that three school-bus passengers were fatally injured; two suffered serious injuries; and four sustained minor injuries.

Investigators examining the truck wreckage found that six brakes on the rig were out of adjustment — either because they had not been adjusted properly, or because they came out of adjustment due to a disproportional workload.

Worse yet, investigators discovered the driver had not conducted a thorough pre-trip inspection on either the tractor or the trailer — and thus did not detect the brake deficiencies.

Finally, investigators concluded that the company mechanic, who served as the fleet's certified brake inspector, lacked proper training in brake maintenance and inspections and did not detect the defective and poorly adjusted trailer brakes.

The high profile crash triggered an on-site compliance review by FMCSA, which found sufficient equipment defects to warrant an “unsatisfactory” rating in the vehicle factor of the compliance review process. But since only one factor was given a rating of unsatisfactory, the carrier was awarded an overall rating of “conditional.”

Consequently, NTSB has recommended the following:

  • Revise the driver inspection requirements to include minimum pre-trip brake inspection and adjustment procedures;

  • Require that vehicle inspections be conducted as part of any on-site compliance review;

  • Revise the brake inspectors specifications to require training, testing and certification as a prerequisite brake inspection;

  • Issue unsatisfactory compliance review ratings if the mechanics and drivers responsible for maintaining brake systems are not qualified brake inspectors.

The Board's recommendations are on point because they are people-based, not equipment-based. Defective brakes are still a safety problem today because people are not adequately trained in maintenance and adjustment procedures.

Unlike the trucks that were on the road when I first sat behind the wheel, today's trucks have more than adequate stopping power. They fail to stop because of slipshod or lackadaisical maintenance and inspection.

Let this tragic accident serve as an incentive to take a closer look at your fleet. Have drivers become too comfortable with the stopping power of today's trucks? Have self-adjusting brakes led them to lose familiarity with brake system operations? Are your mechanics and drivers really knowledgeable about brake adjustment and maintenance procedures?

Answer honestly-and revise your training programs if you need to. Improve inspection procedures and enhance routine brake maintenance.

Jim York is the manager of Zurich North America's Risk Engineering Team, based in Schaumburg, IL.