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Friday, September 3, 2010

Beer Truck Driver Says He Crashed Intentionally

Posted By on Fri, Sep 3, 2010 at 2:15 PM

click to enlarge There are times when crashing a big rig is the only way to go
  • There are times when crashing a big rig is the only way to go
Expert says crashing beer-filled big rig may have been best choice

The driver of a big rig carrying 3,000 gallons of beer, who doused morning traffic yesterday by flipping over on Highway 17, told California Highway Patrol officers that he intentionally crashed his beer truck. He claims he was losing his brakes, and driving into the side of an embankment was his only option.

CHP officers were skeptical of the as-yet unnamed driver's claim, telling media the trucker likely could have downshifted or used the "Jake Brake" to slow his big rig. But a trucking expert contacted by SF Weekly contradicted the cops, pointing out that either of their suggestions would almost certainly have led to a fatal wreck.

SF Weekly sought out Lew Grill, who has been driving big rigs for 42 years, and has served as an expert witness in more than 500 trucking-related legal cases.

When told that officers suggested downshifting, he laughed. That course of action, he says, would be "poor, unwise, imprudent, contrary to the standard of care demanded of truck drivers -- and it would be unsafe."

Trucks, he continues, are not large cars. The transmission system is akin to "a Model-T Ford" and downshifting is not so simple. For example, in order to downshift a big rig, you have to "rev the engine up and doubleclutch it. The gearshift goes to neutral, then the clutch comes out and you rev the engine up." In short, you have to increase the RPMs in order to downshift. But the problem here is, when you're suffering from brake failure, your RPMs are already out of control. Simply put, you can't increase your RPMs, so you can't downshift. Any attempt to do so will result in "free-wheeling" in neutral -- and gaining speed.

Beer truck mishaps aren't always so funny
  • Beer truck mishaps aren't always so funny
"If you're going downhill and your brakes are fading, you cannot downshift," says Grill. "It is too late to do that. And what it feels like is this -- a driver puts his foot on the brakes. It will be spongy, and he will feel a surge forward, but the truck will not stop."

There will be white smoke. "It will smell like hell." Pumping the brakes is akin to working a fire with a bellows pump. White smoke turns black. And as the temperature of the smoldering brakes reaches 700 degrees or more, expanding metal and loose gas push the components farther from one another -- and no braking occurs.

But what about the "Jake Brake?" The device -- given its nickname because of the Jacobs company -- cuts off compression power to the big rig right from the engine. By closing the valves leading from the pistons, Grill likens the Jake's effect to "trying to suck a McDonald's shake through a skinny straw."

But once you've lost your brakes on a downhill incline, this, too, is not an option. The Jake Brake shuts off as soon as you hit the accelerator -- and, remember, you have to hit the accelerator in order to downshift. On its own, "the Jake Brake will not stop a truck," says Grill. "It works better at low RPM than high RPM."

So what are you to do when you find yourself careening down a hill and your brakes are fading? Frankly, you're tits up in a ditch. "You shouldn't be in that position to start with," notes Grill. 

The expert offered his knowledge to SF Weekly on a hypothetical basis -- he had not heard of yesterday's Highway 17 crash. But he said that the brakes on big rigs rarely spontaneously fail -- so some degree of poor driving almost always leads to such situations.

click to enlarge A runaway truck ramp
  • A runaway truck ramp
Well, what to do? The best option is to search for a runaway ramp -- football field-length trails on an incline ("they're steep, man") and packed with three feet of sand. Truckers along I-70 in Colorado -- "arguably the most dangerous of steep terrain country to drive in because of all those mountain passes and tourists" -- have been known to hit runaway ramps at speeds exceeding 110 mph. Hitting the sand at 60 or 70 mph is not uncommon. But there are no runaway ramps on Highway 17.

In such a case -- through poor driving or just incredibly poor luck -- when a trucker finds himself heading downhill and losing his brakes, the only option may be to scuttle the vehicle.

"If you have the opportunity to scrape your truck against the side of a mountain or cliff, that's what you do," says Grill. "You may end up flipping that baby. I hope you've got your seat belt on. You're in dangerous territory there. But those are the cards you were dealt -- and now you've got to play 'em."

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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