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How Brake Failure Causes Tractor-Trailer Accidents

Brake failure can cause truck accidents in a number of ways

Truck accidents involving tractor-trailers and 18-wheelers pose a significant challenge in Texas, with the state witnessing a disproportionate number of these incidents compared to others in the nation, as per data from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

Among the various factors contributing to these accidents, brake failure emerges as a leading cause, raising crucial questions about its prevalence and liability. Understanding the frequency of 18-wheel accidents resulting from brake failure and determining fault becomes essential for those involved.

In Texas, the responsible party bears the legal obligation to compensate truck accident injury victims, underscoring the importance of legal guidance in navigating such complex scenarios. At Smith & Hassler in Houston, TX, our dedicated truck accident attorneys recognize the challenges faced by injury victims and their families, offering support to clarify options and pursue rightful compensation.

What types of brakes do most tractor-trailers have?

Tractor-trailers and other large commercial trucks typically employ various braking systems to ensure safe operation on the road. Common types of brakes found in semi-trucks and 18-wheelers include:

  • Air brakes: Utilizing compressed air, air brakes are among the most common braking systems in tractor-trailers.
  • Hydraulic brakes: This type employs a liquid to exert force on the braking mechanism.
  • Disc brakes: Mechanical in nature, disc brakes function to slow down each wheel individually.
  • Drum brakes: An older mechanical braking system, drum brakes are still utilized in some tractor-trailer trucks.

How common are tractor-trailer brake failure accidents?

Tractor-trailer brake failure accidents are alarmingly common on roads across the country, posing a significant risk to motorists. Studies conducted by the FMCA reveal that approximately 30 percent of accidents involving large trucks resulting in serious injuries or fatalities can be attributed to brake failure.

To grasp the magnitude of this issue, consider that each year, over 160,000 commercial truck accidents involving vehicles weighing more than 10,000 pounds occur nationwide. Consequently, this translates to roughly 48,000 truck accidents annually attributed to brake failure alone.

In Texas, the situation is equally concerning, with an average of over 19,000 large truck accidents occurring each year. Consequently, an estimated 5,700 commercial truck accidents annually in Texas can be directly linked to brake failure.

How common are brake failure violations?

Truck brake failure violations are a constant issue on our roads, contributing significantly to semi-truck accidents. These violations rank consistently among the top truck inspection infractions documented each year. Approximately 12 percent of all commercial truck violations cited by Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) inspectors are related to truck brake violations.

Given the prevalence of these violations, it is critical for tractor-trailer drivers and commercial trucking companies to prioritize the proper functioning of a truck's brakes before permitting an 18-wheeler to travel on the roadways. This proactive approach is essential to enhancing road safety and preventing potentially catastrophic accidents caused by brake failures.

Why do brakes fail on 18-wheelers?

Brakes on tractor-trailers can fail due to a variety of factors, leading to potentially catastrophic accidents. Drawing from inspection records on truck brake violations and truck accident reports, several common causes of truck brake failures on large commercial trucks include:

  • Defective truck brakes: When a tractor-trailer's brakes are defective or malfunctioning, accidents often result due to the inability to stop properly.
  • Truck brake imbalance: Uneven pressure distribution among truck brakes can lead to failures and accidents, as different wheels receive varying levels of braking force.
  • Faulty suspension: Issues with a truck's suspension system can strain the braking system, potentially causing brake failure or diminished braking effectiveness.
  • Truck brake corrosion: Rust or corrosion on truck brakes or their housing can compromise their performance, increasing the risk of accidents.
  • Broken brake drums: Many tractor-trailers utilize drum brakes, and damage or fractures in these components can impair braking ability, resulting in accidents.
  • Poor truck maintenance: Neglecting proper truck maintenance can lead to brake failures, posing significant risks on the road.
  • Overloaded trucks: Exceeding weight limits can strain a truck's brakes, reducing their effectiveness and increasing the likelihood of brake failure and accidents.
  • Manufacturing defects: Errors during the production of truck brakes can introduce flaws that lead to brake failures and subsequent accidents.

What happens when the brakes on a semi-truck fail?

Brake failure can cause truck accidents in a number of ways, including:

Sudden inability to stop

When brakes fail to engage or provide sufficient stopping power, drivers may be unable to bring their vehicles to a halt, resulting in rear-end collisions or collisions with obstacles ahead.

Loss of control on downhill slopes

Brake failure on steep inclines can lead to loss of control, causing trucks to accelerate uncontrollably and potentially collide with other vehicles or structures.

Inadequate braking distance

Trucks experiencing brake failure may be unable to maintain a safe following distance, increasing the risk of rear-end collisions with vehicles ahead.


Brake failure can cause the trailer to swing out of alignment with the cab, resulting in a jackknife scenario where the truck folds in on itself, potentially striking nearby vehicles.

Runaway truck accidents

In extreme cases of brake failure, trucks may become runaway vehicles, careening downhill or out of control on flat terrain and causing widespread damage and injury.

Scenarios where brake failure can lead to accidents include:

  • A truck driver descending a steep mountain pass experiences brake failure, leading to a collision with vehicles ahead or a catastrophic crash at the bottom of the slope.
  • A tractor-trailer traveling on a busy highway cannot stop in time due to brake failure, resulting in a rear-end collision or multi-vehicle pileup.
  • A truck driver loses control of their vehicle while navigating a sharp turn, causing the trailer to jackknife and collide with nearby vehicles.
  • A semi-truck hauling a heavy load experiences brake failure while approaching a congested urban intersection, leading to a runaway truck accident and widespread damage to property and injury to pedestrians.

What regulations cover semi-truck brakes in Texas?

The FMCSA, the federal agency that is part of the Department of Transportation, and the Texas Department of Public Safety (Texas DPS) have many strict rules and regulations governing the braking system for tractor-trailers and other commercial trucks.

Many of these regulations can be found at the federal level in Title 49 of the Code of Federal Regulations, specifically Title 49, Part 393, Subpart C (Brakes). This long list of rules explains the mandatory requirements for a commercial truck’s “required brake system,” “parking brake system,” and “brakes required on all wheels.”

As for Texas’ commercial truck brake system regulations, Texas DPS has many additional requirements governing commercial truck drivers that can be found in Section 15.3 (Brake System) of Chapter 6 of the Texas DPS regulations governing commercial motor vehicles.

Such regulations include a rule that states, “Every commercial motor vehicle shall be equipped with brakes acting on all wheels, except trucks and truck-tractors having three or more axles and manufactured without brakes on the front wheels before July 25, 1980.”

Who inspects tractor-trailer truck brakes in Texas?

Tractor-trailers and commercial truck drivers must often undergo period testing and inspections since such large vehicles have the potential to cause serious or sometimes even fatal truck accidents. When it comes to a tractor-trailer truck’s braking system, inspections are often conducted by the following federal or state agencies in Texas:

  • Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)
  • Texas Department of Public Safety (Texas DPS)

Specifically, at least once a year, tractor-trailers licensed in Texas must undergo an annual multi-point inspection, which includes testing to determine whether a semi-truck’s braking system is working correctly and that the truck’s brakes meet all FMCSA and Texas DPS braking system regulations and requirements.

Liability in a truck accident involving brake failure

Determining fault in cases where semi-truck brakes fail and result in accidents can be complex and may involve multiple parties. The responsibility for brake failure and resulting accidents can fall on various entities, including:

  • Trucking companies: Companies may be held accountable if they failed to properly maintain or inspect their fleet, leading to brake system malfunctions.
  • Truck drivers: Truckers are responsible for conducting pre-trip inspections and reporting any issues with the vehicle's brakes. Negligence in this regard could make the driver liable for accidents resulting from brake failure.
  • Brake manufacturers: If brake failure can be traced back to a manufacturing defect or design flaw, the manufacturer may be held liable for resulting accidents.
  • Maintenance providers: Third-party maintenance or repair companies tasked with servicing the truck's braking system could be held responsible if their negligence or improper repairs contributed to brake failure.

Truck accident claims involving brake failure require a thorough investigation into the circumstances leading up to the accident, including vehicle maintenance records, driver logs, inspection reports, and possibly expert analysis of the brake system. As such, consulting with an experienced truck accident attorney can help accident victims navigate the legal process of assigning fault and pursuing compensation for damages.

Pursuing a truck accident claim with help from a lawyer

If you were injured or a loved one died in a truck accident as a result of brake failure, you have the right to pursue compensation for your losses. Seeking legal help from a skilled truck accident attorney can help you understand your potential legal options and navigate the process of filing a claim or lawsuit.

Remember, the deck is stacked against you after a truck accident because the trucking company and their insurers often prioritize their bottom line over your well-being. They have teams of lawyers and adjusters working to minimize your claim's value. Without experienced legal representation, you may find it challenging to negotiate fair compensation for your injuries and losses. That's why it's crucial to have a dedicated attorney on your side who will fight for your rights and ensure you receive the full and fair compensation you deserve.

Get the law firm you can count on after a truck accident in Texas. Contact us and schedule a free case evaluation. We have four offices located throughout Texas, including three offices in Houston. Our lawyers also offer legal representation on a contingency fee basis. That means you pay nothing unless we win your case.

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