A conversation with a colleague recently served as a painful reminder that many truck safety catastrophes are the result of our failure to learn from past mistakes. The colleague was describing an incident involving a bulk pickup and hauling operation that ran three-axle, heavy load vehicles.
When one of the drivers noticed his brakes weren't holding, he called the company's maintenance department. A mechanic was dispatched to the driver's location, where he determined there was a leak in one of the service brake lines.
But this is where things began to go awry. Incredibly, the mechanic placed a pair of vice grips on the defective brake line and told the driver the truck would be okay for the remainder of his route! The mechanic reminded the driver to write up the defective brake line on the inspection form when he returned to the terminal.
Just after resuming his route, the driver approached an intersection, observed a stop sign and applied the brakes — but the truck would not stop.
The truck broadsided a vehicle driven by a 21-year-old college student, which became lodged underneath the truck and was dragged for a distance.
The woman suffered numerous injuries, resulting in physical and emotional scarring and trauma. Latest reports anticipate a substantial jury award that could easily reach the $2-million mark.
This crash hit home for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that I have a college-age daughter. In addition, crashes related to brake defects, which are all too common, have sparked calls for improved maintenance practices and more regulatory scrutiny.
In 1998, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a Highway Accident Report (HAR-97-02) about a cement mixer crash that happened at the base of a busy interstate exit ramp near Philadelphia. Upon descending the grade, the driver noticed “spongy brakes” and could not stop at the base of the ramp. The truck subsequently entered the crossroad and broadsided a vehicle, killing the driver.
Investigators found that the cement mixer had an undetectable air leak (e.g., faulty low air pressure warning devices) and was operating with a faulty brake treadle valve, since the mechanic had crossed the air supply lines during recent replacement of the brake valve.
A September 2002 NTSB report (HAR-02-03 ) detailed a similar exit-ramp event. Again, a driver noticed spongy brakes at the top of an exit ramp and couldn't stop at the base. This time, however, the cross-traffic vehicle was a school bus, and the collision killed three and severely injured six children.
NTSB investigators found numerous brake defects on the tractor/grain trailer combination: Only two of ten service brakes were fully operational; the front axle brakes were inoperative because they had been “backed off” beyond adjustment limits; three of the brakes were either inoperative or severely restricted by broken springs in the parking brake chambers. Investigators also noted a combination of slack adjuster defects, including broken retaining rings, improper alignment and worn adjustment gears. Many of the noted problems were traced to a brake overhaul a week before the crash. In a follow-up investigation, NTSB found numerous brake defects among the firm's other vehicles and concluded that the mechanics “lacked proper training in brake maintenance and inspection.”
The sad fact is, all three crashes could have been prevented if “best practice” brake maintenance and adjustment procedures had been followed.
Here's what I'm asking you to do. Make a commitment to end these history-repeating brake-defect related crashes in your fleet. Make sure your mechanics and drivers have the right training. Use these events as a lesson to emphasize the importance of best-practice brake inspection and maintenance procedures.
Commit to protecting the safety of our motorist partners. Our families deserve nothing less than our very best efforts.
Jim York is the manager of Zurich Service Corp.'s Risk Engineering Transportation Team, based in Schaumburg, IL.