Understanding Runaway Trucks and the Role of Runaway Truck Ramps

May 19, 2023 7:19:31 PM / Written by: Mike Riegel


What Makes a Truck Run Away?

A "runaway" truck typically refers to a heavy-duty truck that is unable to slow down or stop due to a malfunctioning or overstressed braking system. There are several reasons why this may occur:

  1. Brake Fade: This is one of the most common reasons for a runaway truck. Brake fade occurs when the brakes overheat due to excessive use, especially when the truck is driving downhill for long periods. As the brakes heat up, they become less effective at slowing the vehicle, a condition known as brake fade.

  2. Brake Failure: This can happen due to a number of reasons such as worn-out brakes, brake fluid leaks, or mechanical failures within the braking system. This can cause the brakes to stop functioning altogether, leading to a runaway truck situation.

  3. Improper Load Management: If a truck is overloaded, or if the load is not properly balanced, it can put additional strain on the braking system and make it harder for the truck to slow down or stop.

  4. Poor Maintenance: A lack of regular maintenance can lead to various parts of the truck, including the brakes, to fail or become less effective.

  5. Engine Failure or Malfunctions: In some cases, a malfunctioning engine or a situation called "diesel engine runaway" can cause a truck to lose control. Diesel engine runaway is a rare condition where the engine starts to consume its own oil or other combustible materials, causing the engine to rev up uncontrollably.


How Do You Stop a Runaway Truck?

Stopping a runaway truck can be a dangerous and challenging situation. However, several techniques can be used depending on the circumstances:

  1. Use the Engine Brake or Jake Brake: Engine brakes, also known as Jacob's brakes or "Jake" brakes, are a type of braking system that is separate from the wheel brakes. They use the engine's own power against itself to slow the vehicle. It is most effective when used in combination with regular braking, and can greatly help to reduce speed and prevent brake fade.

  2. Use Runaway Truck Ramps: If available and if the vehicle's brakes are not responding, the driver should use a runaway truck ramp. These are specially designed emergency lanes filled with sand or gravel that help slow and eventually stop a runaway vehicle.

  3. Pump the Brakes: If the brakes are not completely unresponsive, pumping them can help to build up pressure in the braking system and slow the vehicle. However, this technique is less effective on vehicles with anti-lock braking systems (ABS).

In all cases, the driver should try to stay calm, avoid any sudden movements that could cause the vehicle to skid or roll over, and alert any other vehicles on the road by flashing their lights and sounding their horn. They should also try to move towards the right side of the road, where it is safer to stop.

Remember that prevention is key. Regular maintenance and inspection of the vehicle's braking system during pre-trip inspections and DVIR's, proper load management, and careful driving, especially downhill, can prevent many runaway truck situations from occurring in the first place.

Make sure your loads are always balanced and properly loaded-png

How Often Do Runaway Trucks Happen?

While not exceptionally common, runaway trucks are exceptionally deadly when they do occur. According to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), there are an estimated 4,000 runaway truck incidents per year in the U.S., accounting for less than 1% of all truck crashes.

The majority of drivers are able to find a runaway truck ramp and only damage their own vehicle and merchandise. However, roughly one in four runaway trucks are unable to get off the road and end up crashing into nearby cars or even multiple vehicles.


The Purpose of Runaway Truck Ramps

A runaway truck ramp (also known as a runaway truck lane, escape lane, emergency escape ramp, or truck arrester bed) is a traffic device that enables vehicles experiencing braking problems to stop safely. It is typically a long, sand or gravel-filled lane connected to a steep downhill grade section of a main road and is designed to accommodate large trucks or buses. By allowing a moving vehicle's momentum to be dissipated gradually in a controlled and relatively harmless way, it helps the operator stop the vehicle safely.

Runaway truck ramps are usually located in mountainous areas where long descending grades can allow high vehicle speeds to be reached, and truck brakes can overheat and fail through extensive use. The ramps are often built before a critical change in the radius of curvature of the road or before a place that may require the vehicle to stop, such as before an intersection in a populated area. The placement criteria can vary from one region/country to another.

Different designs of runaway truck ramps include:

  • Arrester bed: A gravel-filled ramp adjacent to the road that uses rolling resistance to stop the vehicle. The required length of the bed depends on the mass and speed of the vehicle, the grade of the arrester bed, and the rolling resistance provided by the gravel.

  • Gravity escape ramp: A long, upwardly inclined path parallel to the road. Substantial length is required, and control can be difficult for the driver, including problems like rollback after the vehicle stops.

  • Sand pile escape ramp: A short length of loosely piled sand. Problems with this design include sudden, forceful deceleration, sand being affected by weather conditions (moisture and freezing), and vehicles vaulting and/or overturning after contacting the sand pile.

  • Mechanical-arrestor escape ramp: A proprietary system of stainless-steel nets transversely spanning a paved ramp to engage and retard a runaway vehicle. These systems tend to be costly but may save expensive real estate in crowded areas and prevent even more costly crashes.

Topics: Safety, Overloaded, Maintenance, Trucking

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