Just the other day I received an interesting phone call. On the other end of the phone line was an old friend who retired from the trucking industry but was looking to re-enter. He was quite excited about the fact he had found a used truck that had close to the same list of components that make up the truck that I currently use in my operation.

The conversation remained exuberant until we broached the subject of safety systems. The question my old friend called me about was in regards to whether there was a way to have the safety systems shut off. It’s important to remember that the person I am referring to in this blog has many years of safe driving. The reason this driver wanted the safety systems turned off was due to the story's he had heard.

Let’s take a look at the history of safety systems before going any further into this story. Here is a list of some of the advances in safety in regards to safety devices.

1. Working brakes on the steering axle were not required on a federal level for vehicles over 10,000lbs until July 24, 1980. The rule had a provision that gave trucking companies until February 27, 1988, to reconnect or reinstall brakes that had been removed. Can you imagine what it would be like to stop a truck in an emergency situation without brakes on the steering axle? My only experience driving a semi-truck without steer axle brakes was bobtail and let me tell you it was almost like not having brakes at all. When you hit the brakes weight shifts to the front which means the driving axle will simply lock up a slide.  This set up required a driver to plan out how they were going to stop well in advance of needing to stop. Trying to do an emergency stop without front brakes was a fruitless endeavor. It’s hard to imagine knowing what we know today that anyone would have been against this mandate. 

2. While we are on the subject of brakes let’s talk about air brakes which were adopted for semi-truck use by George Westinghouse. Westinghouse was met with much resistance to his idea of stopping a train using air pressure. Hydraulic brakes were also met with skepticism in the automotive world. Many thought that mechanical linkage was the only way to reliably apply the brakes on any vehicle. Let’s also remember the spring braking force that is applied should an airline become ruptured. This was a very interesting story to research, so if you have some time on your hands look up the history of George Westinghouse.

3. The pneumatic tire had to seem like a really poor idea. After all, how could it be a good idea to support a vehicle with a hollow tire filled with pressurized air? An air-filled tire had to seem utterly ridiculous and unsafe. Just imagine the stories about tires rupturing or blowing out along with all of the worries of a flat tire! Of course, all of these worries of tire failures were overcome by a larger print, increased traction, less vibration, and better handling.

4. Today it’s hard to imagine that prior to 1968 seat belts were not mandatory in automobiles. Today most people just buckle up without a second thought. This debate lasted for many years on the merits of seat belt use. My research on this subject indicated that only 14% of Americans regularly wore their seat belts.

5. Anti Lock Brakes [ABS] was an item that was also met with a lot of resistance from many people including myself. I didn’t think I needed a computer control when and if any wheel under my control would lock up. I was a championship-winning race car driver and in my mind, no computer could control a wheel end as well as myself. Ummm... humbly I must admit … I was very wrong.

There were many other safety systems which outgrowths ABS brakes: 

  • Traction control 
  • Electronic stability control
  • Brakeforce distribution 

Let’s get back to my friend who called me about having his active safety system turned off before he had even driven the truck. At this point, he is reading up on the technology and has agreed to “try” driving with the active safety system in place.

To me, active safety systems will be viewed much the same way we look at many other older technologies today. The key to making any technology work is knowledge. There is so much information available today there is no reason for not understanding how to operate any vehicle correctly and maximizing the benefits of technology. The Freightliner Smart Source App is a great place to go for information on how the systems function on your Freightliner truck. 

The best way to use an active safety system on any vehicle is to not use it at all. Yes, you heard me correctly the key is to stay a step ahead of the system, and then it will only engage for items you missed. I know at this point many of you are saying … “ heard that it goes off for bridges, shadows on the road, or a leaf blowing across the road”.  It is looking for metallic objects mainly, but some of the newer Detroit Assurance systems do have some pedestrian detection ability.  Keep in mind, active safety systems have two main pathways for engagement; Adaptive Cruise Control will maintain and engage to maintain a safe following distance.  Collision mitigation will engage when out of cruise control.   

Active safety systems can engage when you don’t expect them to. For example, let’s say you are on a winding interstate highway like I-77 in West Virginia, your trailer is loaded lightly and there is a semi-truck pulling a heavy load of steel in the right-hand lane at about 35 mph. You are in the left lane, on adaptive cruise control at 65 mph, and the road curves to the left. The radar is looking straight ahead and could pick up on what the system sees as a slower moving vehicle ahead so it could start deceleration to maintain a safe following distance.

Why did the adaptive cruise control engage? Because it saw a slower moving truck in what it thought was the same path as your truck.

As the popularity of safety systems continues, the used truck market will see more and more of these systems. My advice is to learn what the system can do and how it can benefit you before writing it off.

Here is a link to a blog where I go into more detail on the subject of managing a collision mitigation system titled Walk the Dog. In the meantime be safe out there and wish my old friend luck as he learns how to operate a truck equipped with collision mitigation.

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Henry Albert

Henry Albert is the owner of Albert Transport, Inc., based in Statesville, NC. Before participating in the "Slice of Life" program, Albert drove a 2001 Freightliner Century Class S/Tâ„¢, and will use his Cascadia for general freight and a dry van trailer. Albert, who has been a trucker since 1983, was recognized by Overdrive as its 2007 Trucker of the Year.

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