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Electrically Surging Brakes

If you were more than an infant in 1980s or earlier, the year 2000 seemed like an age away. The average American thought people would be traveling in flying cars and have robot maids. Humans have advanced technologically since then, but driverless cars are still a good decade or two away, at least car owners are able to get the best remote start system. What will never change, however, is the need for brakes on vehicles. Trailers need brakes sometimes, and the article this week will look at what the law says about them.

When an average truck officer or trucking industry professional looks at a 53’semi-trailer, no one stops and wonders if the trailer needs brakes. Of course it does. It’s big. It’s heavy. Friction will be required to stop it.

The confusion about when brakes are required occurs with trailers of the smaller variety. Big rig drivers ought not to stop reading at this point, and truck cops who only go after “the big fish” should not either. Why? Because it’s the small trailer the average Joe uses to haul a boat to the lake, an ATV to the trail, or a little dumper with yard waste.

However, it’s these little trailers and their braking requirements which lands driver’s in trouble with the police. Whether enforcement is right or wrong, it’s better to operate with the authoritative knowledge than that of your buddy at the bar.

What the Law Says In 625 ILCS 5/12-301(a)(4), the statute reads all trailers (except boat trailers), with a gross weight over 3,000 pounds (which means 3,001 pounds or more) must have brakes which can be controlled by the driver. This is accomplished by using the independent trailer brake control within the truck.

Boat trailers are discussed in paragraph 4.1. It is almost identical to paragraph 4, except the law does not require the boat trailer brakes to be controlled by the driver. This is why boat trailers typically have “surge brakes”. When the driver engages the service brakes on the power unit and the vehicle decelerates, the trailer “surges” forward, using that energy to activate the brakes.

The law also requires any trailer (boat or non-boat) with a gross weight over 5,000 pounds (which means 5,001 pounds or more) to have an emergency breakaway system in the event the two vehicles become uncoupled. This is normally accomplished with an aircraft cable, attached to the power unit (not the hitch or the safety chains) which ties into the braking system of the trailer.

In the unfortunate instance the two vehicles separate, the aircraft cable either pulls a pin to release the electric battery power to set the brakes on dry trailers, or pulls a lever forward which sets the surge brakes on boat trailers. Hopefully, the trailer will stop soon and without disaster.

What the Law Does Not Say Notice the law does not say “gross vehicle weight rating” (GVWR) or registered weight. What the trailer manufacturer rates as the maximum loaded weight of the vehicle, or what the Secretary of State assigns as the maximum registered weight, means jack squat when it comes to brake requirements. All that matters is how much the vehicle, with load, weighs on the scale.

The law does not give police officers the authority to stop vehicles for the purpose of inspecting brakes (except for Illinois State Police troopers). All other police officers must first lawfully stop the vehicle. The law also does not give the police officer the authority to lawfully stop a vehicle and then begin a fishing expedition, or unconstitutional search, for brake violations. This is fruit of the poisonous tree.

If a police officer wishes to enforce the laws governing brakes in the Illinois Vehicle Code, he must follow an appropriate investigative path: •   He can ask the driver if he would be willing to independently engage the trailer brakes. •   He can ask the driver to open the battery compartment on the trailer to see if there is a battery. •   He can ask the driver if he can weigh the trailer to see if it is even heavy enough to meet certain brake requirements.

A driver can at any time tell the officer “no” to the questions above and the investigation stops. An officer cannot use “reason to believe” a trailer’s weight is exceeding braking requirements. That burden of proof is reserved for overweight violations only.

Just because a police officer believes a trailer weighs in excess of 3,000 pounds does not mean he can order it to the scale. Similarly, just because an officer believes a vehicle weighs in excess of 5,000 pounds does he have the right to declare the trailer must have an emergency breakaway system.  The driver of a truck is entitled to the same civil liberties as the driver of a car, and police officers do not make a practice of stopping cars to check brakes.

Safety is paramount, but a mere suspicion of safety violations does not justify poor enforcement methodologies.

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