On Closer Examination

Handy pre-and post-trip inspection guides are near the front cover of many atlases such as
the Rand McNally Motor Carrier’s Atlas.

When it comes to pre- and post-trip inspections, do you see the glass as half full or half empty?

These inspections are tedious requirements from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. But you might also consider them gifts, daily opportunities to make your job safer, easier and smoother. Not to mention ways to save money and earn respect.

Why not consider the glass half full and accept the gift instead of complaining about the work?

“The most important thing about inspections is to do them,” says Watkins Motor Lines company driver Theodore Gambill of Water Valley, Miss. “But most drivers are in too big of a hurry or too lazy to check things.”

Drivers who skip pre- and post-trip inspections may actually be choosing to risk death and injury, costly breakdowns, fines, out-of-service orders, huge traffic jams, wasted time and the feeling of utter foolishness knowing it could have been prevented so easily “if only I had done a pretrip.” By then it’s usually too late.

Excuses can be compelling. When it’s 3 a.m., 20 below, windy and snowing, it’s bad enough just hooking a trailer and crawling under to knock frozen brake shoes loose. Who adjusts brake pushrods or replaces bad running lights at a time like this, or even at the first safe stop? More commonly, drivers say there’s no time for thorough inspections, or they may think it doesn’t matter because emergencies, breakdowns and DOT inspections won’t happen.

But it does matter. Inspections are not complicated or difficult. You know how, or you can easily learn from many willing teachers. It’s not a question of your ability. It’s a question of your professional attitude: 15-30 minutes, and yes, more if you find a problem. But that’s part of the job you agreed to do.

Veteran drivers never stop inspecting their trucks, and they use all their senses. “I check for leaks, things that are loose and irregular wear on the tires,” says owner-operator Joe Antilla of Duluth, Minn. But his inspection is ongoing. “While I’m driving, I listen for noises, like if something doesn’t sound right, or if there are things that are rattling,” he says. Air leaks are often heard rather than seen. Pop the end cap of an axle hub and poke a finger in to check for adequate lubrication. On a glaring day or at night, a small puddle beneath the truck might be condensation from cooling coils or leaking fuel; only a touch and maybe a whiff will tell for sure.

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“If you’re driving and you smell something, that can tell you something’s wrong,” Antilla says. “Burning oil and grease have different smells, overheating metal has a stinky smell, leaking coolant has its own smell, and burning brakes have their own smell, too.”

Nothing might cause a driver more despair than smelling burning rubber from the cab cooling vent on a hot day: a sign the A/C compressor has seized and burnt its drive belt.

When sharing equipment, careful inspections are even more important. FMCSA regulations speak directly to sharing equipment. It’s illegal to leave safety-related repairs unreported or to use the vehicle in question until reported problems are fixed, and with good reason: lives are at stake, including yours.

“I pull the same trailer all the time,” says Antilla. “If you’re constantly hooking to different trailers, it’s more critical, because you don’t know what shape they’re in.”
Pre- and post-trip inspections are also matters of courtesy toward fellow truckers. If truckers don’t respect truckers, who will?

“If a driver brings a truck in and signs off the paperwork that everything’s fine on it without performing an inspection, then the next driver who comes along has to spend time in the shop getting repairs,” Gambill says.

“Your truck could fall apart, you could crash, or you might break down and wind up being inconvenienced in a big way,” Antilla says. “If you don’t catch something during your inspections, you might break down where it’s not safe, and there are some terrible places to break down. If you’re somewhere very remote and it’s bitterly cold or very hot, there’s nothing fun about that.”

Nor is there any fun in paying the price for skipping inspections. “A lot of times when you break down, it could be avoided,” Gambill says. “If you blow a fully-inflated tire that looked like it was in good shape when you inspected it, well that’s something that can happen. But if you blow a tire because you’ve been running it flat, that’s neglect.”

A little neglect during a pre- or post-trip inspection can mean a dangerous, costly and time-consuming problem on the highway. “You’ve got to correct the problem while you’re at the full-service facility,” says Gambill. “They’re usually more equipped to handle the problem than road service, which costs a lot more. But also, a partial flat at the truckstop turns into a blowout on the highway. Then it’s not just your tire. You’ve got your mud flap blown off, and you have to wait by the side of the road.”

Highway blowouts, especially steer tires, can cause accidents, and tire debris on the roadway – “gators” – are common safety hazards. Drivers can only blame themselves for allowing these circumstances to occur.

And how often could a major traffic jam or hours of wasted time be avoided by a good pre- or post-trip inspection?

“If you’re on I-70 just west of Denver and you break down in the dead of winter, you’ve got a real problem,” Antilla says. “There might or might not be a place to pull over, and it’s going to cost you an arm and a leg to get road service.”

Not to mention potential damage to your rig and the resulting traffic jam.

Skipping inspections also leaves you vulnerable to vandalism by truckers who need parts or want revenge against your employer, events more common than anybody likes to admit. Pull against the trailer brakes a couple times after returning to your truck, a small thing that can make a big difference if a malcontented driver pulled your fifth wheel release while you were away. LED lights are costly, attractive and easy to steal, and a stolen license plate should be detected and reported immediately. Hit and run damage is also a possibility.

Perform at least a walk-around inspection every time you return to your truck.

Seasoned professionals systematize inspections. “If you do it the same way every time, that builds a habit, and you’re going to check more efficiently,” Gambill says. “For example, a lot of drivers start with a certain side. I always start on the left.”

DOT officials use a systematic approach when conducting inspections, and the idea has proven itself worthy of training programs.

“In training, they start right off the bat showing you all the engine points and brake points, what to look for,” says Stevens Transport company driver Jason Stevens of Lake Charles, La. “They try to get you into a habit so it becomes routine and an everyday thing.”

“Experience might be the best teacher,” Gambill says. Inspection routines become fine-tuned with time, and with experience drivers develop a practiced eye that detects more: worn glad-hand seals, poorly fitting tractor-to-trailer electrical connectors, bad trailer tag lights, and when the problem is a bulb, wiring or a fuse.

Besides stressing the importance of performing pre- and post-trip inspections, veteran drivers are usually willing to share their experience. “You can just look and tell if something’s bad,” says Gambill, with 15 years of experience. “But a lot of it is knowing what to look for. If you get an older driver to show you, that’ll help.”

“My trainer used to pull the valve stem caps off the tandems just to see if I was checking. If I didn’t catch it, he’d tell me I just got a violation,” Stevens says. “He used to unhook the glad hands, lower the landing gear and pull the king pin just to make sure I did a good pre-trip.”

Stevens says the formal training at Stevens Transport, where he attended truck-driving school, is rigorous. “About the only thing they didn’t make us do is take the truck apart and put it back together again. There’s a set plan you have to follow that even the DOT follows,” he says. “You have to check everything that has to do with your truck, your driving, and the operation of your truck.”

“You got to know what you’re driving, especially if you’re running mountains,” Stevens says. “If you go down mountains and don’t check your brakes, you don’t know what you’re running with. You pretty much have to have everything working right.”

There are numerous ways to learn how. Truck driving schools and trucking company safety departments are two common places, and the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance has the information on their web site: www.cvsa.org. The Rand McNally Motor Carrier’s Atlas has an inspection chart in the front section, and any state DOT official in any truckstop will gladly help a driver learn how to inspect a big rig.

“Some companies have a DOT-trained inspector on hand to tell you what to check,” Gambill says. “Every major terminal we go to we have somebody who does inspections on the fuel island,” he says of Watkins Motor Lines. Gambill says he’s not afraid to call state departments of transportation and ask for information about pre- and post-trip inspections. “You can get a DOT man to help. They don’t mind, but you have to ask. Men are sometimes more guilty of that. We don’t want to ask. But as truckers we get out of that plenty fast, because we have to know.”

While experience might be the best teacher, Gambill admits that even experienced drivers lose if they stop trying to learn. “I had a co-driver once who tried to show me a few things, and I wasn’t paying attention,” he says. “But there’s a lot of stuff I don’t know, even after doing this for 15 years. When you get to the point where you think you know it all, you might as well park the truck.”