Operating heavy-duty commercial motor vehicle is not easy. There is a reason why professional truck drivers must go through a rigorous amount of training and stay current on industry trends. Making your way down the road and through mountain passes with 80,000 pounds behind you is a delicate task. Heavy duty commercial motor vehicles cannot be operated just like cars.
We know this acutely. While most professional truck drivers operate safely on our nation’s roads day-in and day-out, unfortunate incidents do happen. Most recently, it was the crash on I-70 near Denver that left four people dead. While the incident is still under investigation, initial reports paint a picture of a truck losing control on a 5-mile stretch of a steep highway downgrade.
The truck driver in question in this incident had been driving commercially for just under three years and had only recently been operating a commercial motor vehicle. Furthermore, there are some questions pertaining to the overall health and operational ability of the vehicle in question. Certainly, with the incident still under investigation, there is no point in speculating. Still, something went wrong, and it is likely the trucking company will find itself at the tail end of a long and expensive litigation cycle.
In the Colorado case, mountain truck driver training could have equipped the operator with the skills needed to avoid the accident. The truck driver in this case took his test in Houston, so it is likely he did not practice on any high mountain passes. In fact, if you were to examine the Texas CDL training manual, as well as others from different states, there is hardly any appreciable information related to operating a heavy-duty commercial motor vehicle over mountain passes.
Why? Mainly because there are few areas across North America that have hills or mountains large enough for a truck driver to train on. Then, once a new truck driver is out driving around Colorado or Pennsylvania, the find themselves traversing terrain they were not trained for. Will they know how to navigate a heavy downgrade in a heavy truck?
Why Training is Important
The problem is that today’s equipment and working environment provides a false sense of security. For many commercial motor vehicle drivers, engines with 600 horsepower or more offer the ability for engine-braking. But truck drivers who rely solely on engine braking may be lulled into a false sense of security. What if engine braking fails? What if a truck driver is relying on engine braking alone and then they turn a corner and traffic is at a standstill or there is a deer inside the road? Will there be a plan B?
With the FMCSA attempting to establish a cohesive training program that calls upon real-world examples, there also need to be a focus on advanced driving skills, which includes both winter and mountain truck driving. Advanced driving skills are required because truck drivers need to know how to use runaway truck ramps on long steep grades, especially during inclement weather or in other potentially dangerous circumstances.
Also called “arrestor beds,” these offramps are often filled with loose gravel. The gravel will grip the tire and slow down the truck. If a truck needs to use a runaway ramp, they won’t be cited for it, but they may need to be towed out. So, what are trucking companies doing to address the problem?
The key word here is training. Why not offer an employee or applicant tuition to learn how to navigate extreme driving conditions, such as extreme driving, mountain driving, winter weather driving, hazardous material driving, and more? Enterprising fleet managers know that training is the key to ensuring truck drivers know how to navigate windy roadways amid hazardous conditions. The best way to do it is to take students up and down hills and mountains in these conditions. Even technicians should get in on the game.
Although many states don’t have mountains, there are more than a few fleets that run operations on the 48 states and Canada. You want to cover hills, mountains, brake inspection, adjustment, when to use a runaway ramp, and so much more. A discussion around brake fade, inspection and adjustment should be on the training docket.
Do students know how to shift and brake on steep inclines or downgrades? What are the procedures they should follow at brake-check areas? Many mountain grades have brake check areas at the top of the mountain. But outside of what you train, you must consider geography. If you don’t have mountains in your area, you may want to invest in web-based or VR training platforms.
There should be some methods for teaching truck drivers how to traverse a steep mountain downgrade or incline. Furthermore, do your truck drivers know how to read the appropriate signs? Not all grades have signs. Truck drivers need to know how to read the signs the road provides them. Only through effective coaching and training can truck drivers learn the terrain when there is no terrain for them to learn on.
How do Truck Drivers Respond?
When most truck drivers are exposed to mountainous terrain for the first time, they often face an intractable dilemma. If a truck driver doesn’t know what lies ahead, how will they know what speeds they should travel. Some grades show the profile of a hill. Some may suggest whether a truck driver should use a lower gear or slow down, the advisories are never specific.
Some companies have turned to technology as they work to ensure their truck drivers are trained on difficult or mountainous terrain. As companies have developed these technologies, their own market research has found that even truck drivers experienced in the terrain may find themselves driving up to 20 miles an hour over the speed limit, even when they don’t intend to.
Many truck drivers reduce their speed using a method called brake “snubbing.” Yet, even through brake snubbing, the truck drivers may not be reducing speed by enough. The problem is, as we mentioned before, truck drivers allow themselves to be lulled into a false sense of security. Truck drivers far too often underuse their engine brake or drag their service break to check their speed. No matter how many times that truck driver has responded to the conditions on that hill, they could find themselves in a tough situation if they are not careful.
What truck drivers should be doing is descending at a speed that allows them to use the engine brake, rather than the service brake. If the brakes are smoking and the brake pedal feels squishy, you may already be in a dangerous situation. There are no second chances when brakes fail. There is a system to follow.
How to Descend Safely
Truck drivers should be able to use the engine brake to slow the truck down at a higher RPM. You wan to keep the engine speed in the 1,800 – 2,000 RPM range. If you are going too slow at this point, rather than upshift, switch the engine brake to position 1 or 2. If you need to apply a heavy service brake, you are in too high a gear. On the flipside, if you are running below 1,800 RPMs, your gear position is too low.
While some training programs put a lot of emphasis on keeping the engine RPM as ow as possible, it is important to note that when using the engine brake, you are not using any fuel, at least not any more than you would use when sitting at idle. Even if the engine sped is high, truck drivers need to realize that the truck is not consuming fuel but is rather acting like a big air compressor driven by the momentum of the vehicle.
Some automated transmissions might also be auto programmed to upshift when engine speeds reach a certain level. In these situations, the truck driver may need to put the transmission in a manual or hold mode, which will prevent the upshift. No matter what you do, the transmission will shift to protect the engine if you are going too fast. You don’t want to go faster than the engine brake can handle to maintain speed. If you find yourself in the wrong gear, you want to ensure you rectify the problem at the top of the hill.
If you can’t remember the steps, remember this, use the same gear to descend the hill as you used to ascend it. This applies if you are carrying a load or on your way back. The point is, even if your fleet or does not normally operate in hilly or mountainous terrain, ensuring your truck drivers are properly trained on the methods used to navigate them will serve you better in the long run.