Breaking the "jakes’ |

Breaking the "jakes’

Stephen Lloyd Wood

Truckers descending Interstate 70 through Vail may have to tread lightly on their gas pedals soon – or face a fine of up to $1,500, or more.

The Vail Town Council – nearly three years after vowing to do something about the noise generated from traffic on the freeway running the length of town – has ordered the drawing up of an ordinance that would prohibit the use of engine-compression brakes, commonly known as “jake brakes.”

“This issue has just moved off the back burner,” said Councilman Greg Moffet, a resident of Vail’s Matterhorn neighborhood and perhaps the loudest critic of freeway noise in the Vail Valley. “We’ve got to do something. It’s not going to get any better.”

Moffet was joined by five of his six colleagues – Councilwoman Diana Donovan voted against it – in asking for an ordinance banning use of the loud brakes for eight miles, between mile marker 181 in East Vail to marker 173 in West Vail.

“Let’s be the squeaky wheel on the Western Slope,” added Councilman Dick Cleveland.

A matter of safety

I-70 descends about 500 feet in altitude from East Vail to West Vail, with another 500-foot drop coming before Eagle-Vail. The smell of asbestos brake pads and the sight of truck brakes smoking – or even on fire – are a relatively common sight. Runaway truck ramps are a feature of the local landscape.

While the entire Vail Town Council agreed traffic noise has been an issue in Vail for far too long, Donovan pointed to safety concerns that may come into play if truckers are asked not to use the very equipment that’s meant to control their speed on steep mountain roads.

“The real issue is speed. Truckers gain speed all the way through town to Dowd Junction,” Donovan said, calling any such ordinance foolish.

“This is an in-your-face, immature proposal. There are other ways to be effective.

“This is not enforceable,” she added.

Three loud years

Talk of doing something about traffic noise has bounced around the halls of the Vail Town Hall since a study, released in December 2000, identified four sites in town that exceed the standard for traffic noise in residential areas, or 67 dB, set by the Federal Highway Administration. Those areas include:

– The Intermountain neighborhood in West Vail.

– An area bounded by the Roost Lodge and Timber Ridge apartments.

– The Sandstone neighborhood, north of the freeway.

– The area bounded by the Vail Village parking structure and the Tyrolean restaurant.

A number of methods for cutting the level of traffic noise have been considered, including:

– Constructing “sound berms,” which has been going on in East Vail since before 2000.

– Controlling the speed of I-70 traffic, which is determined by CDOT and the Colorado State Patrol.

– Changing the highway surface, largely a federal responsibility.

– Taking some sort of legal action against the Colorado Department of Transportation.

– Controlling vehicles themselves within the town’s limits, something town leaders can act upon.

“Makes no sense’

Greg Fulton, president of the Colorado Road Carriers Association, which represents the state’s trucking industry, said passing an ordinance against truckers using jake brakes through the town of Vail would encourage them to drive unsafely, creating a “serious safety issue,” not only for truckers, but for local residents and other motorists.

“Jake brakes are a critical safety device, and they are on most trucks,” said Fulton. “This (potential ordinance) makes no sense at all.”

A former transportation planner, Fulton said most big, long-distance trucking companies operate vehicles with engine-compression braking systems that meet federal regulations. The noise problem, he said, stems from an estimated 5 percent of all trucks on the road that have failing muffling systems on their jake brakes – or no mufflers at all.

Fulton pointed to a state statute adopted in 2000 that makes it a crime – punishable by a $500 fine – to operate commercial vehicles “equipped with engine compression brake devices” without “mufflers for such devices.”

“We have more problems enforcing the existing laws,” Fulton said, adding that most trucks passing through Colorado must stop for inspection at at least one port of entry, such as Downeyville, between Georgetown and Idaho Springs, where “quite a few violations” have been written.

“A fair amount of the problem may be related to local trucks that don’t have to clear a port of entry,” he said.

“A big step to take’

Nevertheless, the Vail Town Council appears determined to do something about highway noise before the upcoming election Nov. 4, when more than half the seven-member Town Council goes up for reelection.

“Two of my friends have left the valley because of the noise. Our message needs to be loud and clear,” said Councilman Chuck Ogilby, who’s not running for office again.

Drafting the ordinance will take Vail’s legal staff considerable time. And the necessary consultation with the trucking industry, the Colorado Department of Transportation, the Colorado State Patrol and the Vail Police Department will have to be fast tracked if such an ordinance is to see the light of day before the Vail Town Council in less than two months.

“I believe it’s the council’s intention to get this passed as some sort of legacy,” said Suzanne Silverthorn, Vail’s public information officer. “This is a big deal, and to give this kind of order is a big step to take.”

How to measure noise

By Stephen Lloyd Wood

Measuring noise is a complicated, unwieldy process of interpreting sound units called decibels, or “dB.”

The threshold of hearing, or 0 dB, is literally the sound of undisturbed air molecules bouncing off the human ear drum. The threshold of pain, or 140 dB, is the typical maximum sound level that resonates the ear drum to the point it causes pain.

A 10 dB drop in sound level is considered to be what humans consider to be half; 3 dB is considered the minimum detectable difference.

Sound engineers often use a weighted decibel scale, or dB(A), adjusted for the fact that the human ear is more sensitive to high frequencies, such as a whistle, than to low frequencies, such as the rumble of a truck. An A-weighted scale was used for Vail’s sound study, released in 2000.

Greg Hall, Vail’s director of public works, says studies reveal an average heavy truck using a “jake brake” without a muffler generates noise at a 100 dB level, while a truck with a muffled jake brake produces noise at 85 dB, a 15 dB difference – far less than half what a human perceives as noise.

“Flat ridiculous’

Trucker decries “jake brake’ ban

by Stephen Lloyd Wood

At least one member of the nationwide trucking community was not enthused Wednesday to hear talk of an “anti-jake brake” ordinance in our neck of the woods.

“It doesn’t sound like a good idea to me; any trucker would tell you that’s flat ridiculous,” said Richard Blackburn, a cross-country trucker based in Oklahoma City whose travels bring him through the Colorado High Country about once a year. “It’s about 15 miles of a 7 percent grade from Vail Pass to the bottom. If you’ve got a real heavy load, by the time you get to Vail your brakes are red hot.”

Blackburn said truckers often use “the jake,” named for the Jacobs Engine Brake, trademarked by Jacobs Vehicle Systems, to supplement the use of their wheel brakes – especially on long, downhill grades.

Typically, a trucker negotiating Interstate 70 westbound would “throw the switch on the jake” at Vail Pass and leave it engaged well past Vail – perhaps all the way to Avon, Edwards or even Eagle, he said.

The noise most people associate with “the jake,” Blackburn said, actually occurs when the trucker lifts his foot off the gas pedal, sending compressed air into the engine’s cylinder heads and turning the engine into a power-absorbing air compressor.

“When you’re coming off that pass with a heavy load, say 30,000 or 40,000 pounds, without a jake it can get awfully dangerous,” he said.

West Vail, he said, is where a trucker sees he’s entering the narrow, twisty, steep section of highway leading to Dowd Junction – one of the most dangerous segments of interstate highway in Colorado, as determined by the state highway department –and adjusts accordingly.

He wouldn’t comment, however, on the legal ramifications of a fatal truck accident that might have been avoided if the truck driver had used his jake brake instead of trying to avoid paying a fine in Vail.

Support Local Journalism