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Woodbury County Ordinance Targets Loud Truck Braking Near Rural Communities

Rick Fredericksen
IPR file
Woodbury County's ordinance lays out portions of roads in the county where large trucks can't apply a loud compression brake.

Woodbury County supervisors on Tuesday approved an ordinance to ensure large trucks don’t apply loud compression brakes on some county roads, but critics of the ordinance still believe it is unenforceable.
The ordinance specifies portions of county roads as well as sections of U.S. Highway 75 and U.S. Highway 20 where large trucks can’t apply a compression brake, also known as a “Jake brake”. These brakes use the engine to help a truck slow down, but they’re very loud and can be disruptive to residents who live nearby.


Signs will be placed along eight specified portions of roads to remind drivers of the ordinance. County Engineer Mark Nahra says he hopes the signs will send a message to drivers.


“The majority of law-abiding drivers are not going to be a problem once they’re made aware that an ordinance is in place,” Nahra said.  


Violators will be fined $100, according to the ordinance.


Nahra said the new ordinance came about after some of the smaller communities in the county, like Lawton, expressed concerns about the noise they can hear when a large truck applies a “Jake brake” near their community. 


The cities of Movilleand Sloanalready have compression braking ordinances in place for portions of U.S. Highway 20 and U.S. Highway 141. Nahra said the ordinance that the county Board of Supervisors passed Tuesday includes both of those locations and adds six more, replacing both city ordinances. 


But other counties and cities across the state that have their own ordinances have noted the difficulty of enforcing them. Sac County Sheriff Ken McClure previously told Iowa Public Radio that the restriction is difficult to enforce because of his department’s small staff size and the amount of land they patrol.


“We have 640 square miles that we’re responsible for. And at most I have two cars out,” said McClure in an early December interview, “so being in the right place at the right time is the issue.” 


Woodbury County has over 800 square miles and the sheriff’s department, at any given time, has two to five cars out, said Major Todd Wieck of the Woodbury County Sheriff’s Office.


“Obviously it’s going to have to take one of us actually hearing it and deciding it’s even a nuisance or not,” Wieck said. “We are not familiar with what the decibel level would be, how we’d even enforce it in a courtroom.” 


The volume of a “Jake brake” is comparable to “a loud stereo with the bass turned up or a Harley Davidson motorcycle,” said Jeff Ellerbrock, the owner of Ellerbrock Trucking in Sac County in an interview earlier this month. 


Ellerbrock said truck drivers mainly apply “Jake brakes” — a push button on the dash — when they are driving down a long hill.


When Woodbury County first introduced its ordinance in late November, County Sheriff Dave Drew criticized the proposal on Twitter, calling it “unenforceable.”


“Oh please! Who is enforcing an unenforceable ordinance? What will determine writing the citation, because we hear a jake brake! I'm throwing the flag on that one! Least of our worries!” Drew tweeted.


In an email to Iowa Public Radio, Drew said he stands by his statement, and agreed with colleagues like Sheriff McClure on how difficult it is to enforce the sound-based ordinance with a small staff of deputies in such a large patrol area.


“I’d much rather see our Deputies working drug interdiction on the Interstate, patrolling the rural communities then [sic] be concerned over a Jake Brake issue,” he said.  “I have no plans to purchase a decibel meter to determine if that trucks noise is to [sic] loud, the courts are the ultimate ones to decide if that noise is too loud.” 


The ordinance does not list a “decibel level” – a measurement of how intense the sound is – that officers would use to determine if a truck is braking too loud. As written, it simply says “it is unlawful for the driver to use or operate within the area...any engine brake, compression brake or mechanical exhaust device” that helps a truck brake or slow down.


Nahra said the county has ordered the signs that will go up along roads where the ordinance applies. He expects they’ll be posted at the start of 2019.


Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.