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Importance of Proper Braking Techniques

There are thousands of people killed or injured in accidents every year in the United States alone. In 2022, 4,892 large commercial trucks were involved in fatal crashes, and 171,586 were involved in injury crashes, for a total of 164,016 commercial vehicle accidents according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

Tractor trailer crashed into back of another tractor trailer

Brake failure is among the most common reason that commercial vehicle accidents happen. Driver error, such as distracted driving or improper braking techniques, poses a greater threat to commercial vehicle drivers. This is because commercial drivers face unique challenges that aren't as threatening to drivers of smaller vehicles. These challenges include longer stopping distances and blind spots making it more difficult for them to avoid accidents.


Proper Downhill Braking Techniques

On a long or steep downgrade, a commercial vehicle's brakes should only be used to assist the braking effect of the engine. Shifting to a lower gear automatically slows the truck down, and stops the driver from wearing out or burning the brakes while navigating downgrades. The driver should downshift to the proper lower gear, then:

  • Apply the brakes just enough to feel the truck slow down

  • Release the brakes when speed has been reduced

  • Repeat the above steps when the vehicle’s speed has increased to a safe speed

Semi involved in multi-car pile up

If the low air pressure warning light comes on, the driver should stop and park the truck as soon as safely possible. The warning light may indicate an air leak, which could make controlled braking impossible. Truck drivers should not use the parking brakes if the brakes are hot after coming down a long or steep hill, or they could be damaged by the heat.


Why Proper Downhill Braking is Important

We have all driven down the highway, past a large truck and smelt a weird burning smell. That burning smell is the truck's brakes. When brakes are used to slow or stop a vehicle, the brake shoes or pads rub against the brake drums or discs, creating friction and heat. In a large commercial truck, excessive heat can build up from constant use of the brakes while traveling downhill instead of relying on the engine braking effect. This can lead to brake fade or brake failure, which can cause a deadly crash for you or others on the road.

Excessive heat causes chemical changes in the lining of the brakes, which reduces friction. Overheated brake drums expand, reducing contact with the brake shoes and linings. This is known as brake fade. Continued use under these conditions can cause a truck’s brakes to eventually fail.

Maintain Proper Following Distances

Braking is not only important when navigating hills, curves and gradients, but also when driving around town or on even highways.

F-550 Crash into back of trailer

Drivers of commercial vehicles need to be extra cautious with their following distances because the weight and size of the vehicle makes stopping much more challenging. The Large Truck Crash Causation Study (LTCCS) reported that 5 percent of truck crashes occurred when the Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV) driver was following the lead vehicle too closely.


If you are driving below 40 mph, you should leave at least one second for every 10 feet of vehicle length. For a typical tractor-trailer, this results in 4 seconds between you and the leading vehicle. When traveling at speeds greater than 40 mph, you should leave one at least additional second between your vehicle and the one in front of you. This is challenging with other vehicles getting in front of you or even cutting you off, but try your best to maintain a safe distance behind other vehicles. In adverse weather conditions, your following distance should double.


Make sure to check out our online DOT Training platform, DOT University! We currently are offering Reasonable Suspicion for Supervisors, Cargo Securement, Defensive Driving, and Pre/Post Trip Inspection. In the coming months, we plan on releasing DOT Compliance Essentials and Appendix A.

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