There's nothing like a smack up side the head with a two-by-four to get your attention. That's what the Federal Motor Carrier Administration is doing to maintenance with its Compliance, Safety, Accountability program.

Brakes are central to both the maintenance operation and the outcome of those efforts as recorded by CSA. Last year, Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance inspectors recorded close to 700,000 vehicle defect violations related directly to braking systems.

The defects found at roadside, according to William Schaefer, director of vehicle programs at CVSA, aren't always dramatic. It's mostly small stuff that goes unnoticed in a cursory pre-trip inspection, or things that occur over time if the equipment isn't serviced regularly.

"In no particular order, we see a lot of air leaks in brake hoses, non-matching or mis-sized brake chambers on an axle, insufficient brake lining thickness, and, of course, brakes out of adjustment," he says.

"Certain things are hard for a driver to spot, such as cracked or separated brake linings, and if a driver is alone, it's very difficult to check brake stroke."

Preventive maintenance

PM is not just a pair of letters that roll easily off the tongue. The purpose of a preventive maintenance inspection is to prevent unscheduled downtime, and in this context, guard against citations, fines and CSA points.

However, regular PMs are hard to do when trailers are in the field for months at a time.

Scott Corbett, director of technical service and warranty at Haldex, suggests structuring a PM program based on the same inspection criteria CVSA uses at roadside. "That's the ultimate barometer, isn't it?" he says. "If you are not at least that thorough, something is going to get past."

You can get a copy of the North American Standard Out-of-Service Criteria from CVSA to identify what inspectors look for. Frankly, not only your PM inspections, but also your pre-trip inspections need to be that thorough.

If you don't know enough about your brakes to do it, you'd better get some training.

"There seems to be an assumption that because a driver has a CDL he or she can do a vehicle inspection," Stockton indicates. "Most people, particularly new employees, don't want to tell their boss that they don't know how to inspect brakes or other safety items."

The fact is, brakes are consumable components, they have moving mechanical parts, and they will wear out or fail at some point in time. The real question is whether you or a CVSA inspector finds the problem first.