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Posted: August 1, 2014 by Peter Carter

Descend grades two gears lower than you went up

Gravity’s a killer. It can transform 60,000 pounds of equipment into 30 tons of trouble–that is, if you don’t know how to deal with it. And you should, if you train drivers or you’re involved with your company’s safety program. At some point even flatlanders will have to make a grade, challenging their shifting skills, gear selection, and ability to keep cool when their brakes get hot.

For advice on how to handle the steeps (and train for them), we caught up with Kamloops’ own high priest of mountain driving, Ray Trenholm.
Why ask Trenholm? For the past 30-odd years he’s spent every working moment around trucks in the mountains. These days, he’s president and CEO of his own driving training firm, Columbia Transport, and in that capacity he manages driver training courses at College of the Cariboo in Kamloops. He’s seen it all. “Just the other day,” Trenholm told me, “between Castlegar and Salmo we came across a family having a picnic in the runaway lane.”

Trenholm says most drivers who land in the soft sand of a runaway ramp–if they’re so lucky–do so not because their brakes failed but because gravity got the best of ’em. They got going too fast to keep control. That’s one lesson even a prairie-born operator can take to the bank. Here are a few others for tackling the hills.

TT: First rule: Never go down a hill any faster than you go up, right?
Trenholm: That used to be the adage, but these new trucks can rock and roll. With 600 horsepower, they can go up far faster than they can go down. So you have to go down slower than you can go up.

TT: Is there a new rule for descents?
Trenholm: Generally, descend grades two gears lower than you went up. If you’re going up the hill in sixth, go down in fourth. Otherwise, you might go for that extra shift, and by the time you do the calculation on the right gear, that load’s pushing you down the hill. So unless you’re a veteran driver who knows where to shift, what kind of weight you’re carrying, and how to use the terrain to your advantage, apply the two-gear rule.

TT: What about braking during a descent?
Trenholm: If you choose the right gear and use your engine brake, you shouldn’t have to touch your brake pedal. I was behind a driver recently and his brake lights went on 16 times. If you don’t have an engine brake, put on your four-way flashers and come down in second gear. If you’re going down at 30 km/h, you won’t run into problems, but if you’re going down at 130, you’re going to end up vaporizing either a family coming in the opposite direction or your brakes.

TT: Why do brakes fail in the mountains?
Trenholm: Out here, we don’t have brake system failure. We have driver failure. I was talking to Al Wright [British Columbia’s braking guru, based in Hope, B.C.], and he said he’s only ever seen one automatic slack adjuster fail. No, guys are in a hurry and don’t check their equipment, or they don’t know what they’re doing.

Train your drivers to know and check their equipment and to report things that seem wrong. I know, a driver might be having problems and he’ll phone dispatch and be told “do whatever it takes, just get the load in,” but that’s not good enough. Yesterday, while travelling through Kamloops, we saw a truck in front of us with smoking trailer brakes. The truck was from a flatland province. He stopped at the Husky heading north on the Yellowhead Highway and we asked about the brakes. The driver said the smoke was normal, and that by using the trailer brakes independently and by using the handvalve to apply additional braking he can apply extra braking force to slow himself down.

Let me tell you, this driver is a danger to the equipment and to the other drivers on the highway. By the way, the driver was wearing a cowboy hat.

TT: What if you’re following all the rules, going down a 5-per-cent grade in fourth gear, checking your gauges, and you feel your front tire inching over the edge?
Trenholm: It happens. But the thing is, you’re done if you do a quick emergency to get back where you think you should be. We call that “pulling a Crazy Ivan.” Everything should be done in a slow, controlled fashion. You’ll be okay if you don’t touch anything, keep the wheel as straight as possible, and slowwwly come back onto the main part of the road. But if you touch your brake abruptly, your right tire will have the least traction and it’ll lock up and drag you right over the edge.
Get back on the road, gain your composure, and slow down. New equipment is more powerful and smoother, but the problem with that is, you can’t feel the road so much, so you have to watch the speedometer more and keep your speed down. Whatever the regulatory sign says, you should do 10 under.

TT: You’re always talking about going slow. Who has time? People have to make money out there.
Trenholm: I know times are tough and you don’t make a lot of money, but is that a reason to risk lives? Sure, your drivers get paid by the mile but it doesn’t matter if they don’t make it. If you can’t afford to be in the business, get out of it. If you can’t afford to maintain the truck, sell it. If you’re working for a company that doesn’t provide good equipment, quit.

TT: Okay, I have to ask: If you have a problem, what’s the rule on navigating those runaway lanes?
Trenholm: Just take it straight on, don’t turn, keep the foot on the brake, and when you get to the top of the hill, keep it in gear and shut it off. Then try to re-establish your composure. Depending on what type of load you’re pulling, you might have to think about how to back down, but remember, you probably don’t have brakes. So sit there and wait for things to cool off a little bit and for the DOT to come by. But the thing is, I’ve driven in the mountains for 25 years and I’ve never had to take a runaway lane.

TT: Mmm… Will your cell phone work from the top of that runaway lane?
Trenholm: Are you kidding? You can go for hours out here without coverage. You’re going to need VHF or, if you have loads of money, satellite.

TT: Anything else?
Trenholm: Unless you know the road, don’t drive through the mountains at night. And if you’re just getting to the mountains and you’ve already driven 10 hours, the mountains are not the place to put in the final three. Get some sleep. Make sure your company safety and training officers know the equipment inside out, and they must also know how to demonstrate proper operating procedures to new hires. And remember, read the highway signs. They’re there for a reason. When it says 70 km/h, make sure you’re doing it.

TT: Slow, huh?
Trenholm: The key is patience.


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