The Inside Man explains SUBL: sudden unintended brake loss

What is SUBL?

SUBL –sudden unintended brake loss – is a phenomenon older than SUA – sudden unintended acceleration. We’ve heard it all before and maybe even some of us would’ve also been temped to use that worn excuse. Whenever a driver rear ends a car, T-bones a tricycle or sideswipes a pedestrian we will find that almost all accident investigation reports cite the perpetrator’s claim as “loss of brakes” i.e. brake failure. The papers always carry stories of massive accidents among buses and trucks compounded with dozens of fatalities, commuter or holiday makers alike all due to brake failure. But how does one “lose brakes”?

One common cause

The only cause for brake failure is a leaking hydraulic system and one cannot fail to detect the impending loss of brakes in a modern car. And I mean any car built after 1930 is a modern car. If the car has a brake system leak, one can immediately feel a different spongy feel of the pedal from the cold start before the first trip of the day. Moreover, cars from the 1960s have a fail safe brake warning light on the instrument cluster. Trucks and buses also have the same brake pedal feel and safeguards when it comes to warning about losing brakes. Trucks and buses with air brakes are even better off than cars because the air brake button on the floor, when engaged, can slow a laden 22 wheeler juggernaut faster than any power hydraulic braking system. And air brakes are fail safe - if the engine cannot generate the desired pressure to power the air brake, the engine cannot power the truck to move forward.

The problem with driving is braking

Standard excuse

So losing one’s brakes is another one of those old-wives-tales that has become the standard copy-cat excuse, passed on through generations in order to parry personal liability in failing to brake adequately. Instead of admitting human failure, the tactic is to blame the accident on the brakes themselves, as if they have the power to suddenly vacate, roam and lose or doze off themselves.

No skid marks: no brakes or didn’t brake?

Over at the NLEx, accident investigators never fail to take note that in instances that an accident was caused by brake failure, rarely is there any tell tale skid marks. But such evidence can also prove a failure to use the brakes. This failure to adequately use the brakes becomes magnified when traffic densities on outbound expressways spike during massive holiday exoduses and reentries that happen in all cities across the globe. As expressways get clogged with higher traffic volumes, more traffic accidents happen. Over here, the days before the weekend holidays are the ones to watch for; Christmas season, Holy Week, Labor day (May 1), and All Saint's Day (November 1).

The problem with driving is braking

The cause of rear enders

In hindsight, its easy to analyze why most of the expressway accidents are usually nose-to-tail chain collisions of mostly new and nearly new cars, full of holiday making families, at the hottest times of the day. These shunts are caused by a combination of the change in routine. Regular expressway users are unaccustomed to the thicker traffic and slower speeds and sensing below average journey times, become impatient and determined to make up for lost time. Urban dwellers, on the other hand, are not used to traveling nose to tail at speeds faster than the urban crawl. The cadence of slow and slower then speed up to fast is totally unfamiliar and out of synch to the stop-go-stop cycle of the urban rush hour.

Lack of familiarity

Not used to the faster speeds, the urban driver is not also used to the quicker braking response times needed on expressways. They are also not used to applying stronger force on the brake pedal. Herein lies the difference of making a braking maneuver unscathed or smashed. And if one happens to avoid hitting the rear bumper of the car ahead, there is no certainty that the guy behind will apply his brakes in time too.

The problem with driving is braking

Learning how to brake

Without a doubt, applying the brakes with somewhat more force than usual is uncharted territory for many drivers. That's why at race driving clinics and motorsports schooling, the first driving course, after being taught the right way to sit and hold the steering wheel, is to learn how to brake. This teaches the driver the absolute power of his right foot. And it teaches him to trust it in a way that he can stop far shorter and quicker than he never knew. At JP Tuason safe driving clinics, one is constantly reminded not to be afraid to “stand” on that brake pedal. The pedal metal can withstand forces far stronger than that. Whenever motoring journalists are about to test track a 500hp supercar by the known sports car brands, the first thing the sports car custodians do is require the drivers to freshen up on their braking technique.

Consider the unbelted passengers

Another hindrance as to why drivers fail to exploit the full braking force of their car to avoid an accident is an in-built reflex to protect the inattentive or dozing passengers of the car who may surprisingly wake up, launched into the windshield or front seat back. The only way to take this useless worry from the driver is to require all passengers to wear their seat belts. This way, a driver in an impending accident need only think about braking hard to avoid it. Always remember that in a head on accident of 2 cars impacting at 60km/h, the total net speed is 120. An unbelted passenger is launched into the outdoors or into the windshield at that same speed.

Keep safe distance

Naturally, all this severe braking force need not be deployed if drivers kept distance. Herein lies the problem. Majority of drivers that crowd the expressways on exodus/reentry days are urban dwellers. They're used to slower speeds and closer gaps. Moreover, they are trained to fill in the gaps lest some aggressive driver cuts into their path. These one dimensional reflexes are carried on into the expressway, which is an entirely different environment and with devastating results.

The problem with driving is braking

On road distance estimator

To discourage bunching, French and Chinese expressways have sections that mark out 100m, 200m and 300m gaps and/or 3 to 6 car length gaps. These follow on distances are enforced by video cameras and stiff fines are mailed to violators who “bunch” too close to the lead car's rear bumper. The best local example of this practice was when Leighton was rehabilitating the NLEx in 2004. At the construction zone, they imposed a 60km/h speed limit. More importantly, they also imposed a 6-car length car-to-car distance. This may sound counter-intuitive until one realizes we tend to over-relax when going boringly slow. With the 6-car length gap, one's view of the car in front was comfortably far that even if one dozed off with the slow speed limit, especially after a high carbohydrate lunch, there was plenty of time and space for the driver or the co-driver to be alert to the impending danger. But since there were no monetary penalties for violating it, not too many had the chance to practice this international practice and appreciate why keeping long distances between cars is more relaxing than battling for every inch of urban space.

Learn to use maps

Another cultural problem that even the so-called educated and frequent local foreign traveler suffer is the failure to use maps. Many take routes by memorizing landmarks, landmarks that can change over the years, covered by billboards, demolished by a stray truck, closed for business or taken down by a typhoon. Hence when the marker disappears, doubt and confusion enters and a confused driver is bound to make mistakes as his/her concentration is diverted from an assumption of normality to surprise and bafflement.

Avoid convoys

Many also have this annoying and illegal habit of traveling on convoy where the other family vehicles follow the leader. These convoys are also guilty of appropriating the overtaking lane for themselves, as if turning on the hazard flashers grant them immunity from the law. The same convoys also drive bumper to bumper to prevent others from interfering into their private space and for fear of losing sight of the lead vehicle and thus getting lost. Now if only these drivers had a clear plan where to go, read the signs and follow the map, there is no need to do this dangerous and selfish convoy. After all, any impromptu change of route, stops and plans can easily be relayed by cell phone, to the passengers who can relay the new instructions to the driver.

Look where you’re going

Admittedly, to make drivers realize that its more relaxing and safer to look far beyond their hood ornament and enjoy driving as far behind the lead vehicle's tail pipe is going to take heavy penalties and draconian policing. Sometimes expressway operators open the emergency shoulder as an extra slow moving traffic lane, a practice done under Police guidance in England and illegally in Italy. Our expressways are congested as it is, thus it makes sense to stretch road capacity by extending the exodus and reentry days by the old practice of declaring extra holidays attached to long weekends as intended in the GMA-era Executive Order on Holiday Economics. In the meantime, it always pays to look where you're going, so don't be obsessed staring at that rear bumper. You may just end up paying for it and more.