Safely down: new Australian software for descending steep hills

Downhill driving presents particular safety risks to truck driving. Australian law requires truckers to shift to a lower gear and not use the primary brake for the descent. National telematics body Transport Certification Australia has launched a new app that records the details of the descent for the purposes of improving safety and creating an audit trail. (Photo: Shutterstock).

New software to help heavy trucks descend steep hills more safely has been released for download by Transport Certification Australia (TCA). The application will also remove the need for certain operational restrictions, such as a mandated slower speed at predetermined locations. And it will be able to help truck drivers prove they have complied with traffic law.

TCA is the Australian government body responsible for providing a range of transport advice, technology accreditation and assurance on topics such as telematics across a range road-related transport modes. This includes heavy freight vehicles. “Telematics” means the exchange of data between vehicles and third-parties via integrated systems.

The new software from the TCA is a “Hill Descent Monitoring” application that monitors heavy vehicle speeds on long or steep descents. It can also identify if a vehicle has stopped before descending a hill, which may indicate that a driver has done a brake safety check and engaged a low gear. Failure to do so may be a criminal offence in certain parts of Australia. The new application also helps truckers to generate evidence that they are in fact in compliance with the law.

Rule 108 of the Australian Road Rules requires truckers on certain specified hills to drive their truck in a gear that is low enough to limit the speed of the vehicle when going downhill without using the main brake. A breach of this rule is a criminal offence and is punishable in New South Wales by a fine of 20 penalty units (a penalty unit in New South Wales is valued at A$110 at the time of writing; a 20 penalty unit fine is therefore a fine of A$2,200. The value of a penalty unit varies around Australia). As Australia is a federal country, each state and territory may have its own version of a given law either expressed identically or with minor variations from the other states and territories. See, for instance, the Victorian Road Rules, which are very similar to, but differ in parts from, the New South Wales Road Rules.

Driving down a steep, long, or steep and long hill can be quite hazardous for heavy freight vehicles. The force of gravity acting on a truck rolling downhill will, unless controlled for, cause the vehicle to speed up. Official advice is to choose a gear that will allow downhill descent without the constant use of brakes and to use auxiliary brakes if necessary.

The rationale for this advice, and for Rule 108, is that long braking down a hill will cause brakes to heat rapidly. Unfortunately, brake mechanisms become much less efficient when hot. Heat also erodes and destroys the brake linings, potentially leading to a catastrophic failure of brakes and runaway heavy trucks. It is no theoretical danger. Inappropriate choice of gear and braking techniques have caused the deaths of truck drivers in recent years.

TCA’s CEO, Chris Koniditsiotis, explained to FreightWaves what the practical significance is of the TCA’s new software to the Australian trucking industry.

“The aim is to provide access for heavy vehicles in [certain] environments by ensuring [that] specific operating conditions are monitored and hence permit a regulator to consider granting access. [Heavy] vehicles are currently not permitted this access. As such, the type of operating conditions that may be typically monitored apply to the maximum speed throughout the descent journey, including temporal compliance to avoid periods of congestion, etc. and to demonstrate specific operating conditions in which a physical check of the vehicle, such as braking capacity, is necessary. For certain vehicles it is a requirement that the driver will physically have to inspect the condition of the vehicle and its brakes at a designated location prior to the hill descent. The application provides a means for drivers to record their compliance with the requirement and also provide evidence that the vehicle was at the designated location for a period that would allow such an inspection to take place.”

The TCA’s Hill Descent Monitoring application is rated to give assurance at “Level 2,” which means that there is, or can be, an independent assessment (and not just a self-assessment) of the usage of the application. A “Level 2” assurance includes the collection of data from other sources. It is compatible with other applications available as part of the Australian National Telematics Framework. The Hill Descent Monitoring application is downloadable onto truck hardware via the appropriate service provider.