North Adams, MA:          Local news recently reported of a horrific head-on collision between two tractor trailers and two passenger vehicles, which left wreckage strewn across the road and sent multiple people to the hospital.   The crash occurred when one of the big rigs, which had been traveling on Route 2, reportedly lost its brakes and was unable to stop as it came down an incline.   Statements attributed to Police Director, Michael Cozzaglio, indicate that eye-witnesses saw the brakes of the truck which caused the crash were “smoking and burning as it headed west on Route 2”.  The driver reportedly attempted to stop, but was unable, and subsequently lost control and collided head on with the other tractor-trailer.

While this specific accident is still officially “under investigation”, “smoking the brakes”, such as appears to have occurred here, is an instance which is well known to truckers and typically results from driver error or inattention.   More importantly, it is another example of an incredibly hazardous, but generally preventable, hazard associated with the operation of a semi.

Lest anyone reading this fail to appreciate the gravity of this topic, allow me to paint the picture more fully.  The nature of the load being hauled impacts the weight, and hence the strain on the truck’s braking systems, for obvious reasons.  For instance, a load of household furniture may occupy a lot of space, but typically doesn’t weigh much.  A load of bagged cement, or copper pipe, or other similar cargo may present a dramatically greater load despite occupying a smaller space.   Big rigs are permitted, and often do, travel with a loaded weight of 80,000 pounds (or as close to it as the carrier can manage), and carriers frequently run so close to the max load limit that they are not able to top off their fuel tanks as the weight of a full take would put them over the 80,000 pound limit.

Now, consider the impact of all that weight on the truck’s ability to brake in hilly or mountainous terrain.   If a truck’s service brakes are used extensively on long or repeated downgrades, they will overheat.  It is the job of the driver to manage the situation to prevent overheating – or “smoking” – the brakes.  Engine retarders, commonly known as “Jake brakes” help by using the rig’s engine to aid with braking, but the load being hauled and the characteristics of the presenting roadway may require more.  As such, the driver needs to use common sense and apply the training they should have received to prevent the kind of catastrophic brake failure which caused the accident in North Adams, MA.

If the driver puts the rig into a low enough gear and takes his or her time, there should be no problem.  However, it the driver proves impatient or careless and selects a gear which runs the rig too fast, the brakes will overheat.  Smoking the brakes can lead to a complete loss of braking capacity and even an actual fire from the incredibly high temperatures produced from the severe friction.  The time to act with regard to brake issues in hilly or mountainous terrain is BEFORE the problem arises.  Once a semi’s brakes overheat, the only way to correct the problem is to permit them cool. That means the driver can’t use them.  He or she must allow the brakes to rest by pulling over or by allowing airflow to cool the brakes.  The problem is, the character of the roadway may not permit either option.  An 80,000 pound truck barreling downhill may not have the ability to pull over or run without applying the brakes.  Other methods to bring down engine RPMs to permit a downshift, such as “stab braking” may not be possible or may trigger a fire.  And hence, driver inattention to the important detail of brake management can quickly become irrevocable and turn the truck into an out of control missile.