Line One
Trucker Perspectives

All the noise about engine brakes

by Brian T. Archambault, Glendale, WI

There's really no question that engine brakes are an essential tool in safe mountain descents, but it's important to acknowledge that they do cause plenty of noise. Whether other factors contribute to general road noise or not is irrelevant. Anyone who lives within half a mile of a major highway can attest to the fact that the sound of traffic usually fades into a sort of dull background hum once you grow accustomed to it. But there is absolutely no mistaking an engine brake sputtering at full force. Sixty-foot-high trees and 30-foot-high concrete walls don't muffle the sound much at all.

That's why any attempt to diminish the volume of this equipment is a worthwhile cause, and it's also why it is important to approach the issue with a bit of objectivity. People spend good money to purchase their slice of the American Dream in the form of a nice little ranch-style home in the subdivision, and part of that dream is the idea of a refuge for peace and quiet. Most seasoned drivers understand that our work involves a lot of cooperation, of doing what is necessary to get the job done while trying to limit the impact that our work has on others. That means we don't idle our trucks at high rpm for hours in residential areas, if we can avoid it. We don't take up 40 parking spaces close in at Kmart; we park way out in Siberia where we can't bother any one. And we don't use our engine brakes for general driving, when safe driving practices render them unnecessary.

Unfortunately, there are far too many truckdrivers who do not understand this. You hear them blowing their engine compression coming up to stop signs, on perfectly flat stretches of interstate to keep them from squashing the vehicle that they are tailgating at 75 mph, or in rush hour traffic. I actually heard one driver fire his engine brake in a bobtail in a parking lot. The point is that the engine brake is a safety device that was designed to help drivers manage difficult descents. It was never intended as a toy for reckless drivers to abuse, or as a corrective device for mistakes with their speed and following distance. A safe driver will fire his engine brake every single time that he needs it, but he won't need to do so very often, unless he spends most of his day chugging through mountain passes.

So, part of the problem lies in training and in spreading general awareness of the proper use of engine brakes and of driving downhill. For instance, too many drivers assume that every single steep hill requires the use of an engine brake, and it is simply not true - not even with 80k pushing you from behind. A little anticipation goes a long way. Downshifting and keeping your speed low to begin with makes the vast majority of downgrades negotiable with simple braking. Under most circumstances, momentum is a far more troublesome factor than is mere gravity.

All of us have to push our trucks and ourselves constantly, in our efforts to deliver our hot loads JIT. We must safely maintain a high rate of speed almost continually. The impulse to treat downhill segments like slanted versions of flat pavement is one that should be resisted at all times. There is simply too much risk for us to push the limits just to save a few minutes on a five-mile drop. It may not be macho to back off the throttle, downshift a few gears and ease down the slope rather than fly down it. But, this approach works on more than 90 percent of the hills that are regularly encountered, from the Rockies to West Virginia to the Smokies, with little stress on the brakes and no unnecessary risk. The rest of the time, the engine brake can provide the little extra control that is required.

In ordinary driving, away from the big hills, an engine brake is almost never necessary. I am writing now with my window open, about 14 miles off I-43 just north of Milwaukee, WI. It's 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. In the last hour at least a few "jakes" have gone roaring past. I am far enough away that it isn't very loud, but what about those people trying to sleep in homes right next to the highway? There are no hills on this stretch with more than 20-30 feet in elevation change. An overpass is not a legitimate place to use an engine break; neither is the typical off-ramp. These citizens and taxpayers are probably among those who complain to their legislators and get them all riled up. They have the right, and they have just cause. Shouldn't we, as responsible truckers, take it upon ourselves to eliminate this as an issue? For my part, I support all efforts to improve and silence existing equipment and I also support the incorporation of information on the proper use of engine brakes into the curriculum of truckdriving schools and in-house training centers nationwide.

How did we let this happen?

by Warren Willis Jr., Las Vegas, NV

As you will recall, in the '70s and early '80s our domestic oil production was booming, until environmental concerns prompted a cutback, which in turn caused a greater reliance on foreign oil importation. Case in point: The Alaska wilderness area, which could almost eliminate our reliance on foreign oil.

The Clinton administration has led the charge to declare more national wilderness areas, which is seemingly based upon the lack of political support from those regions (or those region's congressional leaders) to include lack of campaign contributions.

It incenses me to listen to the political rhetoric from Washington, DC, exhorting us citizens to become more economical and "tighten our belts" in dealing with our high reliance on foreign oil. All along we could have been nearly (if not completely) energy independent if we just had the proper foresight to balance conservation of natural resources with our national energy needs. Instead we let politics play the primary role, and now we have gone from approximately 36 percent dependent in the '80s to our current level of around 56 percent.

We must look beyond politics and craft a long-range solution that more effectively utilizes our available national resources. Otherwise we can expect to pay higher and higher prices for fuel and be susceptible to wild price fluctuations.