There is recent interest in examining whether performance-based brake tests are advantageous compared to presently used visual inspections for safety checks of on-the-road commercial vehicles. In this first of a series of two papers, the basic features of visual inspections and performance-based brake tests are presented and discussed. It is shown that the visual inspection method is inherently “predictive” in nature and therefore conservative. A performance-based brake test is objective but not predictive. The performance based test may reveal safety-related defects only for the specific vehicle load configuration and operating condition. The presentation is concluded with a discussion of what may be required for future enforceable use of performance-based brake testing devices for “on the road” inspections of commercial vehicles. In the short term, use of performance based testing will depend on correlation of test results with presently enforceable visual methods or standards. In the long term, development and acceptance of additional safety-related criteria would be appropriate. These factors, along with preliminary results of performance-based brake tester evaluations, are presented in Part 2 of this series.