Passing Grades

Owner-operator Gary Newman says drivers who leave equipment in disrepair are often the real cause of inspection trouble.

Company safety officers, operations chiefs, mechanics and even DOT inspectors say it over and over: sooner or later all trucks get stopped and inspected without warning. The only question is when.

Passing your inspection is simple – do good pretrips every day before driving and posttrips every night after parking; if something’s wrong, get it fixed before you run.

If drivers did only that, there wouldn’t be trucks placed out of service, fines to pay for non-compliance with Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations, or CB horror stories about DOT inspectors possessed by trucker-hating demons, cackling as they create brake violations out of thin air.

“It’s not like truckers don’t know it’s going to happen,” says 25-year trucking veteran Marty Fortun. “Usually they announce the 72-hour inspection checks two or three months ahead. When the drivers hear that announcement, they need to get prepared for it and be ready.”

Roadcheck 2005 is June 7-9.

DOT inspectors are checking everything listed on the CDL pretrip, says Fortun, now a Schneider National driving instructor out of Green Bay, Wis. “From your belts to your brakes to your exhaust, and everything in between,” he says. Fortun tells all his trainees to “keep out of trouble with the little problems and you’ll keep out of trouble with the big problems, because the little problems won’t have a chance to grow.”

Fortun and his wife Lisa have more than 4 million accident-free miles between them, and neither has ever failed a CVSA or FMCSA inspection.

Among drivers who do the right thing, the horror stories aren’t about DOT inspectors but fellow drivers. “The guy who had this trailer before me dropped it that way,” says owner-operator Gary Newman. The trailer hooked to his truck is backed into a repair bay at a truckstop. “It doesn’t have any brakes,” he says. The company he’s leased to, TransAm Trucking, picks up the repair tab, but he still loses time. “I should be in Houston right now,” he says. Drivers who drop a trailer with mechanical problems only pass their responsibility on to their co-workers.

Partner Insights
Information to advance your business from industry suppliers

“The most common violations are brake violations,” says Collin Mooney, director of training programs at the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance and a former inspector. “It could be anything from no brakes to brakes out of adjustment to missing or broken parts.”

The only way drivers can be sure their brakes will pass a surprise roadside inspection is by doing what the safety officers do during a level one, two or five check: get a small flashlight, crawl under and look. Beginning drivers should inspect their brakes, but they are prohibited by law from adjusting them. “By DOT regulations, drivers with under a year of experience cannot adjust brakes on tractor or trailer,” Fortun says. “Drivers with under a year of experience or who are unsure of their brakes should talk with somebody who knows.”

Some drivers believe state, local and federal inspectors who start poking around trucks with flashlights are harassing them. “I used to get that all the time,” Mooney says. “Drivers would think I was picking on them. But I wasn’t picking on them. That’s the standard.”
Mooney is referring to the standard all CVSA and DOT inspectors follow for inspecting a vehicle. “Appearance, nationality and company reputation have nothing to do with it,” Mooney says. “The standard is the standard.”

All trucks are inspected the same way, according to the same criteria. “Troopers cannot be jacks of all trades,” Mooney says. “They have to specialize in order to do a quality job.” Those who perform motor vehicle inspections have been trained to follow a set inspection procedure and observe set standards. They are certified by the CVSA, much the same way skilled workers are trained and certified in a variety of professions.

“CVSA inspectors follow a systematic procedure,” Mooney says. It’s the same whether in Washington, Florida or anywhere in between. “I might see something out of the corner of my eye, but I’m not going to focus on any one thing until I’ve finished the inspection procedure,” he says. “If we bounce around, we’ll miss stuff, so that’s why we follow the system to a T.”

Realizing that the inspector isn’t out to get you is key to getting your attitude in line.

“The inspector is just there doing his job,” Fortun says. “You don’t want to get upset with them or belligerent. The better you react to law enforcement, the better they’ll react to you.”

“A lot of times you’re dealing with the human factor: the inspector and the driver,” says CVSA Marketing and Technology Director Vu Nguyen. “A lot of times the driver’s attitude is going to play a major role in how the inspection goes. The inspector is underneath the truck in 15-below weather or 115-above weather. The last thing he wants is a driver with a bad attitude.”

“It’s not us against them.The inspectors can tell if the driver is genuinely trying to do the right thing and just doesn’t know how,” Nguyen says. “They’ll help the driver. But they can also tell when the driver is trying to pull the wool over their eyes, and that’s when things start to go downhill.”

If you look and act professional, an inspector is more likely to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Your truck’s appearance can affect inspection results, too. “If I see a vehicle that’s poorly maintained, I’m going to pay closer attention to it,” Mooney says. “The same is true for a logbook. If it’s shabby and some of the easier information like dates, mileage and locations are missing, then I’m going to pay closer attention.”

It helps to remember the purpose of inspections – to keep the highways safe.

Information collected during inspections goes into an FMCSA database and is used to determine carrier safety records. Carriers with bad records attract more attention from inspectors. Insurance companies look at a motor carrier’s FMCSA-assigned safety rating when calculating rates and might even refuse coverage if the rating isn’t right. The data is also used to select carrier safety and compliance reviews.

“Carriers get selected based on level and number of inspections and the number of violations,” Mooney says. “If you have one vehicle, and it’s inspected twice, and both times it’s put out of service, then you will be viewed as a high risk carrier,” he says. “You will be flagged for compliance and safety reviews.”

A common misconception about roadside inspections is that if a vehicle is not placed out of service by the CVSA, it is in compliance with FMCSA regulations. “A lot of drivers and carriers think that the out-of-service standard is the standard to which vehicles should be maintained,” Nguyen says.

But the out-of-service standard only represents a dividing line between trucks that are safe enough to be on the road and those that aren’t. “At that level or below it, the vehicle is an imminent hazard to other motorists,” Nguyen says. That means if your truck hovers right around the standard, it is still in pretty rough shape.

Mooney emphasizes that’s not the level to which vehicles have to be maintained. “That’s the level below which the vehicle will be towed,” he says.

Rather than meet the CVSA’s North American Standard Out of Service Criteria (OOSC), trucks are legally required to meet a higher standard: FMCSA regulations. Everything on the pretrip list must be working correctly, and log books, licenses, permits and BOLs must be in order.

For example, if a truck or trailer has one bad taillight, a CVSA inspector will not park it because it is still above the CVSA’s OOSC. However, it is below the standard set by FMCSA regulations, which require that all lights work. The inspectors, who are also law enforcement officers, can write tickets for one bad taillight; they just won’t park the truck for it.

But if all the truck’s taillights are out, then it falls below both the FMCSA regulations and the CVSA OOSC. The driver can be ticketed, and the truck will be parked. “The violation is so severe we can’t even allow the truck back out on the road,” Mooney says. “At that point the driver has to call road service, or we’ll have it towed to the nearest location where the problem can be repaired.”

If the driver can fix the problem on the spot, then the truck will be allowed to roll. “Even working here at the training center, I still carry extra lights, bulbs, headlights and a serpentine belt, because it’s a lot easier if there’s something you can fix yourself rather than waiting an hour for someone to bring the parts,” says Fortun. “And it’s a lot cheaper than having a mechanic come out and charge you by the mile and the hour.”

The driver must wait until after the inspection to make even minor repairs, if he or she knows how. If you can’t make the repairs yourself, get an exact description of the out-of-service violation from the inspector before calling breakdown or road service. “The driver should be able to tell the mechanic what the problem is,” Fortun says. “For example, instead of saying ‘the thing right next to the steering axle,’ you’re talking about the drag link connecting the pitman arm to the upper steering arm.”

But if the truck is found in violation of FMCSA regulations, the violations must be fixed “within a reasonable amount of time, at his next stop,” Mooney says. “I’ll stop a vehicle, and the driver will say, ‘I was just inspected last week, and I was allowed to proceed,’ and he’ll show me a list of 10 violations.”

Five of the first six items in level one and two inspections, and most of a level three inspection, focus on the driver and documents. “You want to make sure you have any and all paperwork and your logbook up to date to the last change of duty,” Fortun says. “BOL, scale receipts, anything and everything pertaining to the load.” It helps to know where proof of insurance, registration for the truck and trailer, and any necessary permits can be found. Out-of-date or missing documents can usually be updated or replaced on the spot by fax. It is also reassuring, during any of these three inspections, to know the permit book is complete and up to date because you checked it at the last terminal.

“Some of the most common mistakes are logbook mistakes,” Fortun says. “The logbook is a legal document that shows where you were at what time. If your logbook says you were in Chicago at 6 a.m., and you get pulled over three hours away at 7:30, the inspector is going to know darn well somebody isn’t doing their logbook correctly.” Inspectors have also been known to check logbooks against the times stamped on fuel, scale and toll receipts. A half hour off here and there might not be a problem. But more than an hour off is likely to be cited, and inspectors commonly park drivers in scale-house parking lots for 10 hours if they’re past the 11-hour rule.

CVSA: ‘There to Help’
“A lot of drivers and companies don’t know what the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance is,” says Vu Nguyen, CVSA marketing and technology director. “It’s a non-profit organization. We are in the know of all the latest safety initiatives. Companies of 10 power units or less can join the alliance for $250 a year. More than 10, it’s $550. They’ll get safety bulletins and contact information for CVSA people within different law enforcement organizations, so they’ll have contacts to help them deal with problems or get information.

“This saves money all the time. If your truck is on the side of the road needing permits or repairs, CVSA can help. If you get one violation and get put out of service, it’s going to cost more than $250 in repairs, missed freight and road service.

“CVSA is a network of people who are there to help. If you get involved with the program, you’ll get your money back 10 times over. We have over 450 associate members.”