Descending safely

There are 2 YouTube videos attached. The first one does show a fatal wreck, but no blood and gore. The second is an absolute must watch for any inexperienced driver to learn how to properly descend a hill. The hill in the video is a brutal one in either direction. It is 26 kms from top to bottom, with a gradient of between 6 and 8%.

There’s an old saying that “speed kills”, and truer words were never spoken.

In this video from YouTube, excessive speed while descending a hill (Donner Pass) caused the death of both drivers. What the actual speed was, I can’t say for certain, but to a trained eye, it looks to be about 55 mph.  Just before the trailer flips over, you’ll notice a puff from the right side of the trailer. This is likely the tire blowing out, which only ensured the wreck.

So, how can we prevent this from happening to us? That’s the easy part. When approaching a steep downgrade, reduce your speed before you start down the hill, and use your engine brake as much as possible, while using the vehicle brakes as little as possible. With time and experience, you will soon be able to control your speed down almost any hill just by using the engine brake. It may not seem like it, but you can descend the biggest, steepest hills using just your engine brake if, and ONLY if, you start down the hill at the proper speed. Even the westbound side of Roger’s Pass, and the downgrade on BC 5, known as “The Smasher,” can be easily descended using just the engine brake. If you start down the hill a bit too quickly, and the engine brake won’t hold your speed, then use the truck brakes to slow yourself, and drop a gear. Just be very careful because if you miss the gear, you’ll pick up speed very quickly. One thing to remember, and I don’t know if this is taught in driving schools, is that engine brakes work better in lower gears and at higher RPMs. If you start down The Smasher at about 40 mph, with the RPMs at about 1,500, it’s almost a guarantee you’ll have a safe, uneventful trip down the mountain, with plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. With the mandatory brake check at the top of The Smasher, there’s no reason to be running much over 30 mph when you start down.

This video shows a driver properly descending The Smasher and explaining what he is doing and why.

Remember:  you can descend a hill a million times going too slow, but you’ll never make it down once going too fast, as the precious video shows.

Don Taylor has been a professional driver since March 1985.  In 1994 he made the jump to driving tractor trailers, and has accumulated over 3.5 million miles, including over 4 years of driving turnpike doubles in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.  He is currently hauling flat decks across North America.