When commercial trucks get in accidents, there can be catastrophic consequences for anyone unlucky enough to find themselves in their path. The disparity in size and weight between commercial trucks and passenger vehicles is significant, which also means trucks need considerably more space to bring to a stop. It’s critical for both truck drivers and other road users to understand the braking distances large trucks require. That way, everyone on the road can make safer decisions, ultimately preventing accidents and minimizing injuries.
The Physics of Braking Distances
Braking distance is the distance a vehicle travels from the time the driver applies the brakes until the vehicle comes to a complete stop. For commercial trucks, this distance is significantly affected by several factors, including the following:
- Weight and Load of the Truck: A heavier truck will require a longer distance to stop than a lighter one, as greater weight leads to increased force. In other words, the more freight a truck is hauling, the longer it will take to bring to a stop – and semi-trucks can weigh up to 80,000 pounds when fully loaded, more than 20 times that of the average family sedan.
- Speed of the Truck: Since acceleration is the other half of the force equation, the speed at which a truck travels also plays a crucial role in determining its stopping distance. The faster a truck is moving, the more distance it will need to come to a complete stop. This is because the faster a truck moves, the more kinetic energy it has, and it takes more time and distance to dissipate this energy during braking.
- Road Conditions and Weather: Lastly, the conditions through which the truck travels will also affect its braking distance. Wet or icy roads can significantly increase the stopping distance by reducing friction between the tires and the road surface. Similarly, road gradients also affect stopping distances; going downhill increases stopping distances, while uphill decreases them.
So, what does this all mean practically? It means that trucks take much longer to bring to a stop than cars. Total stopping distance is a function of three factors:
- Perception distance, or the distance the vehicle travels between when a hazard presents itself and when a driver recognizes it
- Reaction time, or the time it takes a driver who perceives a hazard to respond to it by applying the brakes
- Braking distance, or the amount of time it takes the now-applied brakes to arrest the motion of the vehicle
For trucks, there is a fourth factor: brake lag. The brake systems in passenger vehicles use liquid braking fluid to compress the brake pads against the tires. On the other hand, trucks use air, which has certain advantages over fluid but takes longer to work as speed increases. Consider the following:
- At 40 miles per hour, a car takes 124 feet to stop, while a truck takes 169 feet, or 36 percent longer.
- When speed increases to 55 mph, a car takes 225 feet to stop while a truck takes 335 feet, or 49 percent longer.
- At highway speeds of 65 mph, a car takes 316 feet to stop while a truck takes 525 feet, or 66 percent longer.
The Dangers of Insufficient Braking Distances for Trucks
Here are the consequences of trucks taking longer to stop than passenger vehicles, given the same road conditions:
- A truck that does not have enough distance to stop safely has a greater risk of rear-ending other vehicles or jack-knifing. The latter term describes an accident unique to articulated vehicles in which a difference in momentum between the two elements causes the trailer to lose sync with the tractor and swing toward it with the hitch that connects the two, serving as the pivot.
- In a collision involving a commercial truck and a passenger vehicle, the occupants of the passenger vehicle are at a much higher risk of suffering severe injuries or fatalities due to the size and weight disparity between the two vehicles.
- Insufficient braking distances can also result in significant property damage, including damage to the vehicles involved in the collision and potential damage to roadside structures or other property.
Additionally, truck drivers and trucking companies may face legal and financial consequences following an accident caused by insufficient braking distances. This may include fines, lawsuits, increased insurance premiums, and potentially the loss of a commercial driving license or operating permit.
Tips for Drivers to Ensure Safe Braking Distances
If you’re a truck driver, you can reduce the chance of causing an accident by keeping the following tips in mind:
- Maintain proper following distances
- Adjust speed based on weather and road conditions
- Use engine brakes and downshifting techniques to aid in stopping
Other road users can do their part, too. If you’re driving a passenger vehicle, remember to:
- Always practice defensive driving techniques while behind the wheel
- Avoid sudden lane changes and abrupt stops in front of trucks
- Read and digest the information on this page to better understand the dynamics of truck braking distances
Advancements in Truck Braking Technology that Enhance Safety
Here are some technological advancements that are enhancing the safety of commercial trucks by improving their braking performance:
- Antilock Brake Systems (ABS) prevent the wheels from locking up during hard braking, which helps to maintain steering control and reduces the stopping distance. A study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that vehicles with ABS systems crashed into encroaching vehicles less frequently than those without, 31 percent compared to 43 percent (p. 44).
- Electronic Stability Control (ESC) helps to prevent rollovers and loss of control by automatically applying the brakes to individual wheels if it detects that the truck is about to lose control or rollover. The NHTSA estimates that mandatory ESC installation on heavy trucks could prevent 40 to 56 percent of so-called “untripped” rollover crashes and 14 percent of loss-of-control wrecks.
- Collision Avoidance Systems and Automatic Emergency Braking use sensors, cameras, and radar to detect potential collisions and warn the driver. If the driver does not take appropriate action, the automatic emergency braking system can apply the brakes automatically to prevent or mitigate the collision. The Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) found that forward collision warnings coupled with autonomous braking systems reduced rear-end crashes resulting in injuries by 56 percent.
Reducing Accidents By Understanding Braking Distances
Ultimately, it is every road user’s responsibility to understand that trucks have greater braking distances than passenger vehicles and to integrate that knowledge into their driving behavior. By doing so, we can reduce the number of accidents on our roads and prevent injuries from happening in the first place. So, apply what you’ve learned through this informative blog the next time you’re sharing the road with large commercial vehicles.
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