Give your brakes – and passengers in the loo – a break

It was dark as we cruised through Salina, Russell and Hays, Kan., on Interstate 40. In the days before interstates my boss would make us transit these towns without using the clutch or brakes on the Brill.

Dave Millhouser

Life’s not easy if you’re partially color blind, and it was hard to tell the difference between a street lamp and a green traffic signal — until that sucker jumped red. Since the key to avoiding braking is anticipation, I was always a tad nervous.

On the occasions when we were successful, our sleeping passengers got a really smooth ride, but that wasn’t the reason for this exercise.

On an “IC41” the clutch was considered a part-time worker. All the big stuff was fine, but the hydraulic linkage was famous for vacationing just when you needed it.       Learning to double clutch without the clutch was an important skill.

The throttle linkage was hydraulic too, but you could keep going using a piece of rope.

So, in an unrequested prequel to the recent column on lane changes, it might be fun to discuss stopping.

Back in the day there was no need for antilock brakes because brakes were incapable of locking. You could stomp as hard as you wished, and they’d mock you.   Maintaining safe spacing in a four-coach convoy stretched that sucker out to about 20 miles. Back then every bus driver was good about looking far down the road (because Darwin had snatched those who weren’t).

Fast-forward a few years (OK, 50). We have nifty disk brakes that stop quickly (and resist fading), as well as retarders and engine brakes. Aw heck, even the new adaptive cruise control feels free to use the brakes when it feels the urge.

Maybe it’s the old codger in me, but I still prefer to think of them as treasured resources to be spent wisely. They’re (literally and figuratively) like life insurance. Good to have, bad to use.

Every time you apply them, you’re using energy. Sounds silly, but the bus burned fuel to gain the momentum that the brakes are now eating, and will burn more when its time to accelerate again.

Better to have eyeballed the situation in advance and coasted where possible to avoid stop and go.

Service brakes, retarder or engine brake, Mother Nature doesn’t care. Braking wastes energy.

Passengers appreciate it every time you don’t brake. When a vehicle slows or accelerates they are forced to use back and neck muscles to keep their heads in place, which is a good thing.

This is also true on sharp turns. If aggressive driving exercises them too much, they may be too worn out at the end of the day to leave a tip.

Another reason to ease into situations where slowing or stopping may be imminent is that stuff doesn’t always work. In ye olden days a rupture in the air system could leave you with no brakes at all.

Properly maintained, modern systems virtually eliminate that possibility. But a mechanical failure could result in partial braking at a moment when you really need the whole enchilada.

The flip side of that concept is that modern brakes, when they do work, are almost too powerful. On occasions when a coach needs to do a “drop anchor/full-tilt boogie” stop, that can happen quickly enough to injure people, even if there is no “accident.”

Anticipating and avoiding those situations prevents customers from feeling like they’ve been riding in a blender.

There are a number of stories (some even true) about a driver dynamiting the brakes while a passenger was in an awkward position — in the lavatory. Most of these stories end with that same person in a more awkward position in the aisle, or even worse, in another passenger’s lap.

Do the math — that is at least two folks who are unlikely to leave the driver a tip.

Years ago, an Flx VL100 returned from a trip with the driver complaining that the brakes didn’t work. We were just about to head to the Dinner Bell Cafe for lunch when our boss muttered something to the effect that “real men didn’t need brakes.”

Heading down the road we looked back and saw Joe fire that baby up and sweep around the parking lot at speed, aiming for an open bay in the garage.

BOOM! You could hear the bus hit the back of the garage from two blocks away. Heck, you could see the sheet metal wall bow out.

A couple of minutes later Joe staggered into the Dinner Bell. “OK, so those brakes aren’t quite right,” he said.

Apparently real men (and presumably women) DO need brakes, but the point of all this is that we should think of braking the same way we look at golf scores. Less is better.

Dave Millhouser is a bus-industry marketing consultant and freelance writer. Contact him by email at


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