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What Can Make Semi-Truck Brakes Fail? An Atlanta Trucking Law Firm Explains

Donald Singleton
January 7, 2024

The average loaded semi-truck weighs an incredible 80,000 pounds. That said, it’s extremely scary to think that these trucks could experience a braking failure and suddenly be unable to stop while traveling down a highway.

Sadly, this exact scenario is a reality for thousands of truckers across the nation every year. It’s also the reason why you’ll see so many runaway truck ramps installed alongside most highways. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, the most frequently used runaway truck ramp is used at least once a week in the summer!

When semi truck brakes fail, experienced truckers may be able to navigate to these emergency runaway ramps, but that’s not always possible. Sometimes, the failure causes a serious collision with devastating injuries and losses. Learn more about brake failure accidents, what causes them, and how to cope with this type of crash if you get involved in one below.

Photo truck brake pads for repairing

How Air Brake Systems Work in Semi-Trucks

The first thing you need to know about brakes when it comes to semi-trucks is that the braking systems used by big truckers are completely different from brakes in your traditional vehicle. Traditional cars use hydraulic brakes, but semitrucks use air brakes.

First, air is pressurized by the truck’s compressor. Then, the air compressor pumps that air into air storage tanks. This compressed air sits in the storage tanks until a trucker needs to use their brakes. Once the trucker pushes down on their brakes, air pressure releases the parking brake by engaging a spring force once the pressure is reduced. A rod comes out, increasing the friction on the wheels and stopping the truck.

If the air pressure in the truck drops too low, then the spring in the chamber is designed to be able to overcome the force of the air and still apply brakes on the wheels.

Air Brake Failure: Why Does it Happen?

Like a traditional car’s braking system, a truck’s air brake system can also fail. So, what causes semi trailer brakes to fail? In a nutshell, it depends. There are several factors that could cause the brakes in a truck to not work as it is expected to.

Some semi truck brakes fail due to driver error, while other brake failures can be directly connected to a defective car part, poor maintenance, overuse, or overloaded cargo.

Knowing what can make semi-truck brakes fail can help everyone stay safer on the road. Learn more about the most common causes of brake failure in semi trucks below.

Improper Maintenance

S-cam, or air brakes, typically need to be inspected on a regular basis. Every time a trucker is about to go on a job, they should first give a visual inspection of their brake system to ensure it is in working order. It’s also wise for truckers to utilize trucking stops to inspect their brakes before they descend on steep hills.

Every three months, the brakes should get a more thorough inspection. A failure to properly maintain the brakes or inspect them regularly could ultimately result in a preventable failure.

Air brake systems usually need in-depth servicing by 250,000 to 300,000 miles, which doesn’t take long for a trucker to drive.

Brake Imbalance

One of the most common reasons why semi truck brakes fail is due to brake imbalance. When the brake system in a semi is not aligned correctly, failure is very likely. Imbalance can occur when brake system components are mismatched or when a deficiency in one part is impacting the whole system.

Brake imbalance often results in a trailer swingout or jackknifing. If the failure happens while the truck is going downhill, it can also result in a brake fade or fire. This fire can quickly spread to the tires.

Overuse and Overheating Going Downhill

It takes specific training and sometimes experience for truckers to become comfortable traveling downhill in a heavy semitruck. Overusing the brakes while traveling down a steep incline can quickly lead to brake fire and a complete loss of control. Overusing the brakes will cause the air to get drained from the compressor faster than the compressor can replenish it. Without any air pressure, the truck can suddenly end up with no brakes.

Not Using the Front Brakes

When truckers don’t use the front brakes, the trailer brakes take on the full burden of the weight of the truck and braking. When this happens, the whole truck’s ability to slow down and stop is significantly reduced, and it can lead to brake failure, especially if the imbalance causes the trailer brakes to sustain damage or fail completely.

Overloaded Trailers

When a truck is carrying too much weight, it becomes more difficult to stop. As a result of overloading, truckers might have to compensate by overusing their brakes. Too much stress on the brakes can also lead to failure.

Investigating Truck Brake Failure After a Crash

Since there are so many potential causes of truck brake failure, it will be a real challenge to determine exactly what caused your specific accident and the truck’s brakes to fail. Police who arrive at the accident scene will complete an initial investigation into what happened, but they likely won’t have the time to thoroughly process what caused the brakes to fail. Instead, they’ll be most interested in making sure everyone’s medical needs are taken care of, the roadway is clear, and the official police report documents all the relevant details of the incident.

After you get your medical needs taken care of, it might be in your best interests to prompt a full investigation into the truck brake failure. To do so, you’ll want an independent agent to take a good look at the truck, the brakes, the facts surrounding the accident, and potentially the trucker’s actions leading up to the crash. This agent could be a private investigator, a lawyer, or someone else you hire. The last agent you want to rely on is the trucking company’s investigators. It’s likely that this investigator will have a vested interest in protecting the trucking company, so it’s worth it to look for someone independent who can help.

Who is Liable for Truck Brake Failure?

Multiple parties could potentially be liable for a truck brake failure depending on exactly what caused it. If it’s determined that the truck driver caused or contributed to the accident, then they could be held liable for the accident. If the driver was on the clock and working for someone else, then the trucking company might be the party you’ll want to pursue compensation from.

If a truck part is the root cause of your accident, then the manufacturer might be liable if it’s a defectively designed or manufactured part. If the part caused the crash due to a lack of maintenance, however, then the party responsible for maintaining the truck will be held responsible. If overloading is the issue, then either the truck driver or the loading company who overloaded the truck could be held liable.

Considering how many parties are potentially involved in trucking accidents, it makes the most sense to contact an attorney to help you determine who could be liable.

How to Handle a Truck Brake Failure Accident Claim

Knowing what to do if brakes fail in a semi-truck and an accident ensues is crucial for not only your physical wellbeing but also for your future rights to seek compensation.

After a truck accident, you should always call the police out to the scene. Since almost every truck accident will result in some level of property damage and possibly injuries, it makes the most sense to have the authorities come out to issue emergency medical care and create an official report.

While you get the medical help you need, authorities will begin an initial investigation into what happened, document important evidence, and record the details and facts of your case that can be gathered at the scene.

Once you get the medical care you need, you’ll want to start documenting your losses. If they are significant, then your next step should be to contact an attorney for your next steps.

Get in Touch With a Truck Accident Lawyer

Have you recently experienced a trucking accident? When semi truck brakes fail and a crash happens, the injured individuals often have legal recourse. Under the law, the party that caused the collision will be held financially liable for the losses that result from the crash.

For that reason, it’s worth your time and effort to hire a qualified legal representative who can help you investigate the brake failure and identify who might be responsible. Once you document your losses and compile a strong claim, you can present it to the responsible party and start negotiating a reasonable settlement. This compensation award should reflect the extent of your losses.

Since this process is complex and time-consuming, it’s usually best to hire a legal representative to help while you focus on your physical recovery. Schedule a meeting with our firm now to get started on your claim for compensation and let us help you seek justice.

Donald Singleton

Donald Singleton


A Georgia native, Don founded Singleton Law Firm in 1999 as a continuation of his lifetime commitment to serving his state and community. He has concentrated his trial practice to representing victims of serious injury and wrongful death arising out of trucking, car, bus and motorcycle accidents, premises liability and a wide variety of other causes.

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