Brake smoke from this trailer's tandem is too faint to be seen by the camera. But if it had a nose it would've squaked. Photo: Tom Berg

Brake smoke from this trailer's tandem is too faint to be seen by the camera. But if it had a nose it would've squaked. Photo: Tom Berg

Driving southeast on U.S. 33 in central Ohio a day ago, I crested a hill and got a whiff of something burning. It was that foundry smell. Is there one around here? I wondered to myself, then decided no – that was the odor of burning brake lining.

For a few minutes I saw nothing ahead but cars, but I went over another hill and there way ahead was a semi – the likely source of the odor. As I got closer, the smell got stronger, and as I approached the semi I saw wisps of blue smoke coming from the trailer’s tandem on the driver’s side.

Can’t he see that? I again wondered. If not, can’t he feel the trailer dragging against his tractor? I guess the answer was no and no. The guy continued on at about 65 mph, within the speed limit on this stretch where Highway 33 is a freeway.

I passed the rig and looked up at the driver, but couldn’t get his attention. I slowed and let him pass me, then followed, hoping to catch him at a traffic light if he pulled off. Soon he did, around a long, curving ramp onto eastbound Ohio 347, a wide four-laner that leads to Honda Motor Company’s assembly plants. He kept going, though, breezing through two green lights.

I passed him again but his Freightliner sat too high for me to get his attention from the low side window on my Nissan Altima rental car. I finally gave up and turned around to head home. Maybe he’d notice the smoke when he got to his destination, hopefully before the dragging brake set the hub and tire afire.

In thinking about it, I realized that the driver was not acting stupid because on 33, a northerly wind was blowing the brake smoke toward the right side of the rig, out of sight of his left-side mirror, and the smoke was too faint to be seen in the right-side mirror. Then, on Hwy. 347, the smoke blew toward the rear, again out of the driver’s view, and smell.

Tell you what, though: That odor was strong, and it permeated my car’s interior and didn’t dissipate for about 30 minutes, and not until I had dropped a couple of windows to air it out. It was a nose full.

I hoped the driver did a decent inspection of the trailer when he got to where he was going; if he touched the tires, he’d certainly have felt the heat from that dragging brake. No -- all he had to do was breathe as he walked back to open the trailer's rear doors, and he'd smell it. 

Maybe that’s the moral of the story. Check out the equipment with an eye – and nose – for what might be wrong. If it’s a tight brake, get under with a wrench and back it off, then tell the boss about it.  

Author

Tom Berg
Tom Berg

Tom Berg

Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational and hybrid vehicles.

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Journalist since 1965, truck writer and editor since 1978. CDL-qualified; conducts road tests on new heavy-, medium- and light-duty tractors and trucks. Specializes in vocational and hybrid vehicles.

View Bio
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