Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Do not drive downhill with your foot on the brake.

Peter Allen in Paris writes...

At least 26 people died yesterday when a coach carrying Roman Catholic pilgrims from Poland crashed through safety barriers on a winding mountain road in France. Another 24 people were injured, 14 of them seriously with some in a critical condition.

The accident happened high in the Alps on the road between Gap and Grenoble. All those on board were returning from the sacred shrine of Notre Dame de la Salette, where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared to two children in 1846.

The coach, which is believed to have had faulty brakes, smashed through a safety barrier at around 9.30 am and fell 130 feet on to the banks of a river, before bursting into flames. Local people tried to put out the fire with buckets of water, while the injured were rushed to two hospitals by ambulance and helicopter.

Christiane Bonnard, who lives nearby, said: "I heard the sound of the crash and came rushing to the scene. There were bodies lying everywhere. I also saw part of a severed foot. It was really traumatic."

Five hours after the accident, rescue workers said all on board were accounted for. Nine unidentifiable bodies were found on the coach. Police said one driver was among the dead.

Motorcyclists following the coach told investigators that it was moving downhill at 44 miles per hour with rear brake lights lit.

They saw sparks flying as it picked up speed on the last stretch and plunged through the barrier.

...I think that this accident should never have happened. When driving a bus or coach downhill you should never use the brakes to check your speed. All modern buses and coaches are fitted with a retarder or an exhaust brake. The driver uses this secondary braking to check the speed of the bus or coach. The driver does not use the foot brake unless he wants to stop. It is part of driver training and common sense that all brakes will fade with prolonged use due to the heat generated caused by the friction. On very old buses and coaches without secondary braking the driver should select the appropriate gear and descend the hill under compression so that the engine braking checks your speed. When I drove a Bristol FLF in the 1980's there were special bus stops erected at the top of steep hills in Bristol. The sign would instruct the driver to stop and then engage 2nd gear. The driver would then descend the hill in 2nd gear without using the brakes and when the road levels out he would change up into 3rd gear. If for any reason he had to stop, then a quick dab on the brake pedal would quickly bring the bus to a halt because the brakes were cool. Driving this way means that your brakes are always cool and you can use them if you want to stop.

Brakes do not fail on buses or coaches because of the way the compressed air system works. If you have low air pressure for whatever reason then the air pressure gauge will drop and a warning buzzer will sound. If the air pressure falls any further then the brakes will come on as a fail safe. What this system cannot stop is the driver cooking the brakes by driving downhill with his foot on the brake. Brake fade will then take over and the driver has lost control of the vehicle.

It really saddens me that 26 people have lost their lives because of ignorance of an elementary driving skill. There are a lot of Polish lorries and coaches being driven on our roads here in the UK and I hope that their driving skills are up to scratch. The other week in London I noticed that VOSA were having an inspection campaign of all the Polish coaches in Bulleid Way, just around the corner from Victoria Coach Station.
Trust me, they are not. I live in the Fens around Cambridge with quite a few narrow roads with no barriers and steep ditches on either side and on more than one occasion I've had cause to swerve to avoid some nutjob eastern European truck being driven too quickly or erratically for the conditions. It's not just the trucks either, there are a lot of migrant workers here (who I don't mind, they seem decent sorts who are just trying to make a living) but you see them driving some real wrecks and quite often overloaded with six or more people in them. I doubt many would pass an MOT.
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