Slow and Steady – The Key to Traversing Down Steep Grade

Losing the ability to slow your speed, especially down steep grade, is one of the most unnerving things a driver can experience on the road. It’s one of those ‘“It’ll never happen to me” scenarios, but if your brakes give out, and there is no way to slow down, all you can do is hope there is a runaway ramp nearby to safely bring your truck to a stop. While you may have never seen them used in person, runaway ramps are needed more often than you think.

While there isn’t a recent report on the usage of runaway ramps, a 1981 study for the National Highway Traffic Safety Traffic Administration (NHTSA) estimated that runaway truck ramp incidents occurred 2,450 times per year. We can assume the rate at which runaway truck ramps are used has decreased over the years with improved technology and safety measures, but on occasion, drivers still need to use the ramps.

When you take a look at the trucks that have needed to use a runaway ramp, they all have one thing in common: brake failure. Brakes are the last line of defense when navigating steep grade, so when they give out, you have no other options. During the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance’s (CVSA’s) Brake Safety Day 2018, 1 out of 7 trucks were pulled from the road for brake violations. That’s cause for concern.

It’s a stat that everyone should be alarmed at, whether you frequent steep hills or not. When a truck uses a runaway ramp, the finger is usually pointed at driver error. But if fleets aren’t providing drivers safe equipment, that’s a whole other issue that needs to be resolved.

Knowing the CVSA’s report, it’s a good idea to have your brakes inspected before traveling through states with steep graded roads. Take Colorado for example. Colorado resides in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, and to pass through the state, drivers will travel through plenty of mountain passes.

With some of the most rugged terrain in all of North America, it’s no surprise that these runaway ramps are used frequently. In fact, according to Tamara Rollison, a Communications Manager with the Colorado Department of Transportation, truck ramps have been used at least 57 times since 2016 in Colorado. When approaching a hill, it’s better to be slow than sorry. Downshift to a gear that will keep you at a consistent slow speed. If you don’t have a jake brake, you’ll have to downshift to an even lower gear to match the speed you want to go. It may seem like you’re crawling down the hill once you first descend, but you’ll pick up speed, and quick.

The transmission is meant to do the “heavy lifting” to keep you at a consistent and safe speed. Brakes are really only to be used when you have no options left. If you think your brakes are strong enough to handle 80,000 pounds of chrome, steel, and load, even if you’ve had them inspected, think again. If you have to use them, use them as lightly as possible.

The reality is, the majority of drivers know all this, after all, they’re professional drivers. But accidents still happen.

While runaway ramps are used year-round, they are most commonly used in the summer when roadways are hot. If you haven’t shifted into a low enough gear and find yourself riding the brakes, the friction coupled with the hot blacktop in the summer is a recipe for disaster.

So what’s the financial burden of using a runaway ramp? There is no fine because state patrols want drivers to use them in the case of an emergency – but there are some other costs associated with truck ramps, depending on how aggressively the truck hits the ramp. Towing and vehicle repair will be immediate costs, in addition to an increased chance of the company’s federal safety rating being affected which could result in higher insurance rates. Keep in mind that all these expenses are negligible when compared to your safety, and the safety of others – you should always use the runaway ramp should you need it.

While runaway ramps prevent many potentially deadly crashes, they still occasionally happen. And some of these accidents are caused purely from driver neglect or inexperience. Just a couple of months ago, a truck driver in Colorado lost control of his brakes and ran into cars ahead of him. Sadly, there were casualties. The driver had driven past a runaway ramp after his brakes gave out.

Every driver wants to get to their destination as soon as possible, but it’s always best to take it easy and be safe. A few minutes behind schedule is better than a load not showing up at all, or worse. As we enter the peak time for runaway truck accidents, remember to inspect your breaks regularly, and that going slow and steady down those slopes will get you to your destination safely.