Hightstown may banish Jake-braking trucks

The council is considering an ordinance that will make it illegal for truck drivers in Hightstown to use a noisy method of slowing their vehicles.

By: Scott Morgan
   HIGHTSTOWN — It is an imposing sound, a deep throaty growl recognizable to anyone who has ever heard it.
   In technical spheres, it is called "compression release engine braking"; familiarly, it is known as Jake-braking. In the borough it is just called noise and many want it stopped.
   Borough Council is expected to vote Monday on an ordinance outlawing such noise in the borough, and to some that’s music to the ears.
   Jake-braking, named after Jacobs Vehicle Systems, which invented it, is a compression-based engine braking system similar to downshifting in a car. When the driver of a large, diesel truck downshifts, the Jake brake system actually converts the engine into an air compressor to provide greater braking power.
   "The main advantage of a Jake brake," according to online information source howstuffworks.com, "is that it saves wear on the normal brakes. This is especially important on long downhill stretches."
   That sounds fine on paper, but on the street, on those downhill stretches, or where the speed limit suddenly drops, it sounds like a grumbling roar.
   Anthony Uzwiak knows this for sure. Dr. Uzwiak and his family live on Mercer Street, exactly at the point at which the avenue’s downhill stretch begins and the speed limit drops from 35 mph to 25 mph.
   The Uzwiak home, painted a tranquil blue and accented to the side by a long garden path, seems peaceful enough at midday. Indeed, Dr. Uzwiak admits midday is not the problem. But the crack of dawn is another story entirely.
   At 5:30 in the morning, Dr. Uzwiak said, the growling begins as "semi after semi after semi" come rolling past and by 5:30 in the evening, after a relatively quiet eight-hour hiatus, it returns with "dump truck after dump truck after dump truck."
   To understand what such language means, consider a recent traffic study by the borough’s Public Safety Committee that Dr. Uzwiak, a member of the PSC, said counted an average of 785 trucks cruising through the borough every day. Phyllis Deal, also a member of the PSC, said that while she did not have exact numbers of her own, that figure was a little high. Still, she said, there are plenty of trucks, including the one that rattles her Stockton Street home every morning at 5:15.
   While Dr. Uzwiak calls commerce "a very important thing," he said the increase in commercial traffic passing through the borough in recent years has made the situation very uncomfortable. Indeed, recent development in the communities surrounding Hightstown has increased commercial traffic through town.
   Dr. Uzwiak described the problem of Jake-braking as having its roots in a somewhat thorny disagreement with the state Department of Transportation over lowering the speed limit on this very stretch of road.
   Over the past year, the Public Safety Committee has attempted to sway DOT into approving a drop in speed limit in the 35 mph zone from Grape Run Road to the 200 block of Mercer Street. Even with a borough-backed resolution, DOT has refused to allow the change, citing its own 2001 study for support. According to that study, DOT found that 85 percent of drivers do not noticeably exceed the speed limit in this 350-yard stretch. It concluded, therefore, that dropping the speed limit would be "unduly restrictive."
   Dr. Uzwiak said DOT is missing the point. He said the words "unduly restrictive" are ridiculous. The stretch of road the PSC wants changed is about the size of three football fields, which Dr. Uzwiak said translates into adding less than 10 seconds of drive time. Also, at the point at which Mercer Street meets Grape Run Road there are a pair of cemeteries and a pair of gas stations, but no homes.
   Dr. Uzwiak referred to the want for quiet as a "quality-of-life issue." He said it is not about restricting commerce, but rather about allowing the borough a little control over how people pass through town.
   This strip of Mercer Street, of course, is not the only spot in town where the inharmonious sounds of engine braking can be heard. Where North Main Street meets Franklin Street, directly outside Hightstown Engine Company No. 1, and at the point at which Mercer and South Main streets merge to become North Main Street, also are hot-spots for Jake-braking.
   But in this generally commercial district, there is less concern for noise.
   At Howell & Bogdan CPAs, which sits at the Main Street-Mercer Street point, George Hurley said the noise is not intrusive to his work day. Mr. Hurley said trucks need to stop and he doesn’t mind that the drivers use compression brakes.
   "As annoying as the screeching may be," he said, "the sound of crashing metal would be more annoying."
   Next door, at L & J Electronics, owner Louis Ordoñez said he is not put out by Jake-braking in the least.
   Mr. Ordoñez said truckers need to make a living and need to use the borough streets to do their jobs. He added that the noise mainly takes place during weekdays when people should be at work anyway. To put limits on business, he said, would only be restrictive.
   Regardless, police Chief James Eufemia said he is looking forward to an enforceable law that can prevent residents from being jarred awake or rattled by noise.
   Still, even Dr. Uzwiak is under no delusions that an ordinance will return the borough to being the "sleepy little town" it used to be. But it is a start, he said, toward wrangling some control.
   "I don’t have a gloom-and-doom attitude, but we have to be aware that there are a lot of forces driving our town that we have no control over," Dr. Uzwiak said. "But we’ve got to start somewhere. I think our town would be a much nicer place if we eliminated some of that noise."