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Did a Truck Brake Failure Cause Your Accident?

May 3, 2023 - Car Accident by

Close-up of a semi truck's wheels

When fully loaded, a semi-truck can weigh up to 80,000 pounds—20 to 40 times as much as a typical passenger vehicle. That’s why they’re equipped with heavy duty braking systems designed to provide maximum stopping power in emergency scenarios. An unexpected brake failure at the wrong time can lead to devastating consequences.

But while semi-truck brakes are impressive pieces of technology, they’re also complicated and prone to failure. Unfortunately, brake problems are distressingly common in commercial vehicle fleets.

How common? According to Transport Topics, out of 38,117 trucks that underwent a brake inspection in August 2022 during Brake Inspection Week, more than 5,000 (13.3%) were taken out of service for brake-related violations.

If you’ve been hurt in a collision with a commercial truck and suspect brake failure may have been a contributing factor, it’s extremely important to speak with a truck accident lawyer as soon as possible. Brakes can fail for a variety of reasons. If you don’t take action quickly, it may become much more difficult to obtain the evidence required to identify the at-fault parties, prove your case, and get fair compensation for your injuries.

In this blog post, we will discuss truck braking systems, why they are so prone to failure, who is legally responsible to pay for injuries caused by brake failures, and how a truck accident lawyer can help.

Truck Brake Systems Are Incredibly Complex

Because they weigh much more than passenger vehicles, commercial trucks have a much longer stopping distance. To compensate, tractor-trailers and other large vehicles are generally equipped with compressed air brake systems, while cars and light trucks typically use mechanically simpler hydraulic brakes.

Compressed air brake systems have many separate parts, including:

  • control pedals
  • parking brakes
  • service brakes
  • an air compressor driven by the engine
  • a compressed air storage tank

When a truck driver steps on the brake pedal, it creates pressure that moves air to the brake chamber. This causes the brakes to reduce the rotation speed of the wheel.

While this is a more effective means of stopping large vehicles, the brake systems are also prone to failure without proper use or maintenance. More components are required to store, regulate, and control the compressed air. And the more complex a system is, the more potential points of failure.

Unfortunately, the failure of truck brakes can be a significant contributing factor in large truck and tractor-trailer accidents.

Why Do Truck Brake Systems Fail?

There are many reasons why a truck’s brakes might fail at a critical moment. Here are a few of the most common culprits.

Poor Maintenance

A great number of brake failure accidents are ultimately the result of insufficient maintenance procedures on the part of trucking companies and the mechanics who service their fleets.

State and federal regulations require brakes and other safety components to be regularly inspected and maintained. However, trucking companies under pressure to hit tight deadlines, make shipments on time, and keep trucks on the road have been known to cut corners. In fact, neglected maintenance and failure to comply with federal and state requirements are among the most common causes of large truck crashes related to faulty brakes.

A variety of different maintenance failures can result in problems with an air brake system. Some examples include:

  • Torque imbalance. If a brake system has mismatched mechanical components, components that don’t work properly, or components that aren’t adjusted correctly, this can cause the brakes on some wheels to work harder than others and make them more prone to locking up. Individual brakes are usually affected when torque imbalance occurs, with jackknifing one likely result. Another is trailer swing-out, which occurs when the trailer’s axles brake with greater force than the tractor and the trailer begins to swing outward.
  • Pneumatic imbalance. Pneumatic imbalance occurs when the air pressure is not equal on all wheel ends. Some brakes will work harder than others and be more likely to lock up. However, when pneumatic imbalance is the problem, typically an entire axle or set of axles will be affected rather than individual wheels. Jackknifing and trailer swing-outs are again common with brake imbalance.
  • Water in the air brake system. Because air brakes use condensed air, water is an inevitable byproduct. Unfortunately, water in air brake lines can cause issues, especially when the weather is cold and ice forms and blocks air from getting through. When this occurs, the wheels may lock up on the vehicle. Modern braking systems typically have automatic drain valves installed in air tanks to prevent water from getting into the air brake system, but this is still a potential problem in older vehicles or if the valves don’t work perfectly.
  • Worn rubber seals on air couplers. This can cause air to escape, resulting in air being unable to reach the braking system and the wheels’ locking up.

All these problems can potentially be prevented by performing routine brake inspections and ensuring that brake maintenance is a top priority.

Driver Error

Brake failure could also result from a truck driver failing to use the brake system correctly, or operating the vehicle in a way that puts too much stress on the brakes.

Because air brakes require a great deal of maintenance, it is not uncommon for brake deficiencies to develop. When any problem, even a small one, develops in the braking system, a driver can exacerbate that problem and cause an accident by putting stress on the brakes in an emergency situation.

Drivers who operate tractor-trailers should understand that air brakes, and even secondary systems, aren’t always going to work flawlessly at 100 percent braking capacity. To compensate for potential brake issues, drivers should take reasonable precautions when driving. For example:

  • Avoid following too closely or driving too quickly.
  • Use proper braking technique when traveling downhill.
  • Avoid slamming the brakes too hard, which can easily cause a truck to jackknife (especially in poor weather conditions or when braking and swerving simultaneously).

Who Is Responsible for Failed Brakes?

Truck drivers and trucking companies are the best lines of defense against serious truck accidents caused by brake failures. If a truck accident occurs, it is important to identify whether there was a failure in either maintenance or vehicle operation.

Depending on what exactly caused a truck’s brakes to fail, you could have a legitimate personal injury claim against several parties, including:

  • The truck driver. The driver might have been following too closely, driving recklessly, or didn’t perform a basic inspection before getting behind the wheel.
  • The trucking company. Truck companies are responsible for ensuring their trucks meet safety standards. They are also responsible for ensuring the drivers they hire are qualified and properly trained to inspect, maintain, and operate the vehicles safely.
  • The truck owner. The person or company that owns the truck (and is responsible for proper brake maintenance) may not necessarily be the same as the company that employs the driver.
  • A mechanic. If the trucking company or truck owner uses a third party for inspections and repairs, the mechanic could be at fault for improper maintenance.
  • The truck or equipment manufacturer. If a truck accident was caused solely by a design or manufacturing failure in the truck or its braking system, then the manufacturer could be held responsible in a product liability lawsuit.
  • The cargo loader. Excessively heavy or improperly loaded cargo can increase the strain on the brakes and contribute to an untimely failure.

How a Truck Accident Lawyer Can Help You With Your Personal Injury Case

Truck accident claims and lawsuits can be incredibly complex. In order to get fair compensation, you need to:

  • Identify the root causes of the accident.
  • Determine which parties were legally responsible.
  • Determine all the potential sources of insurance coverage that apply to your situation.
  • Carefully document all your medical bills, lost wages, and other financial and subjective losses.
  • Successfully argue your case to the insurance companies or, if necessary, the court.

All the while, time is not on your side—and neither is the trucking company or insurance company. Their goal is to deny responsibility and pay you as little as possible. Sadly, trucking companies have been known to hide evidence of their culpability. They are even legally allowed to destroy certain logs and data after enough time has passed.

The best way to protect your rights and get the compensation you deserve is by working with an experienced truck accident lawyer.

Your lawyer will know how to protect and obtain critical evidence that can prove what really happened, such as truck maintenance records, logbooks, and black box data from the truck’s event recorder. This evidence might show, for example, that essential maintenance wasn’t performed, or the truck driver was driving too fast and slammed on the brakes too hard.

An in-depth investigation as soon as possible after the crash is often the difference between getting a fair settlement or walking away with little or nothing. That’s why it’s so important to talk with a lawyer right away and let them worry about your legal case, while you worry about getting better.

The Call Costs You Nothing. It Could Mean Everything

If you’ve been in a truck accident caused by failed brakes—or any other reason—request your free consultation with the East Texas truck accident lawyers at Roberts & Roberts today. Our board-certified attorneys have been handling big truck wreck cases for years and are ready to get to work for you. Just call 903-597-6000 or fill out an online contact form to get started.


Miller, E. (2022, November 15). Inspectors Place 13.3% of CMVs Out of Service During Brake Safety Week. Transport Topics. Retrieved from https://www.ttnews.com/articles/inspectors-place-133-cmvs-out-service-during-brake-safety-week

The content provided here is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject.

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