The problem is not brake failure

2008-05-15 00:00

While I cannot comment on the extent to which the driver who died in Monday’s fatal accident on Town Hill was or was not a hero, the fact remains that the accident occurred because he lost control of the vehicle.

A witness estimates that, at one point, the vehicle was travelling at 160 km/h. To achieve this speed, or anything like it, it can only have been in too high a gear, or in neutral. If the driver had stopped at the mandatory stop just past the Hilton off-ramp and then engaged the appropriate gear to travel at the maximum speed of 60 km/h, not only would he not have needed to use his brakes, but it would have been impossible for the vehicle to achieve such a speed.

I do not know how this accident occurred, but I have observed, on a daily basis over many years, drivers exhibiting the most appalling lack of appreciation of the danger of not observing the mandatory stops and/or speed limits. A relatively new practice is to avoid the first mandatory stop (and to leapfrog past three or four trucks) by taking the Hilton off-ramp, crossing straight over Hilton Avenue and back on to the freeway on the other side.

Crossing the solid barrier line (which marks the truck lane) to overtake other trucks is now a common occurrence and generally requires speeds in excess of 100 km/h. Apart from the fact that this means the truck is now travelling way faster than is safe, it is also extremely hazardous for other motorists who are entitled to assume that trucks will stay in the truck lane. Generally, the second mandatory stop, near the Victoria Country Club, is unavoidable as there is usually a backlog, although it is debatable whether many trucks actually stop and engage first gear.

A far worse practice is that of using the Peter Brown Road slip lane (marked Peter Brown Road only) as an overtaking lane, down the left-hand side of the string of trucks to be passed. Again this means the truck has put on speed and is in a higher gear than is safe. Braking effort will be required to slow it down and the risk of missing the down-change and ending up in neutral arises. As for the danger to motorists wishing to use the Peter Brown slip road, it doesn’t bear thinking about.

By far the biggest combination of factors, however, is excessive speed which, for a heavily laden truck, may be as little as 60 km/h or even less, and excessive use of brakes. I see trucks every day with their brake lights on for long periods. Several times every week I see trucks with smoke pouring from their dangerously overheated brakes. I once stopped a trucker whose vehicle’s brakes were actually on fire. He thanked me, poured a bit of water on them, got back in and drove off!

The cause of these accidents is then identified as brake failure. Well, of course the brakes will fail if they are consistently over-used to retard a heavily laden freight-truck travelling too fast. But the problem is not brake failure. The problem is inadequate driver training (including ensuring drivers have a clear appreciation of the physics of speed and load), inadequate screening of drivers by employers, inadequate monitoring of speed over distance by truck owners, inadequate enforcement of compulsory rest periods, inadequate monitoring of truck loads (the heavier it is, the harder it is to stop) and inadequate enforcement of the mandatory stops, speed limits and use of the truck lane on Town Hill.

For a section of the N3 which is so obviously extremely dangerous and which carries such an unbelievable load of heavy traffic, the RTI presence is grossly inadequate, inconsistent and often inappropriate. What is the point of patrolmen sitting a few hundred metres above the point where most accidents take place (at the Peter Brown off-ramp)? If a truck is out of control they will be mere observers of the inevitable mayhem further down the hill. Surely it makes more sense to monitor the second compulsory stop (and arrestor bed) at the top of the last, long descent? They can then observe every truck and identify those whose brakes are already overheated, or are in any other way unroadworthy. In this way they might actually prevent some of these accidents from happening at all.

In addition cameras should be installed at both compulsory stops to record whether trucks have stopped even when there are no patrolmen present or available. Pairs of patrolmen, on motorbikes, should “sweep” the route throughout the day, to try to reduce the occurrence of illegal overtaking manoeuvres.

Excuses about lack of manpower and lack of resources really don’t hold water. This (unlike Zimbabwe) is a crisis and it needs to be dealt with as such.

• Nigel Hemming CA(SA) is a senior lecturer in the School of Accounting, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg campus.

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