Ohio is one of the toughest states for maintenance violations, and it takes the grand prize for issuing light violations. No state comes close to Ohio when measuring light violations as a percentage of total violations.
In 2013, nearly a third of the state’s total violations were for missing or inoperative lights. The actual percentage, 30.5, was more than 5 percentage points higher than the next closest state in the rankings – Rhode Island, at 25.1 percent.
Cynics might consider that fact to be indicative of nitpicking enforcement or clear evidence of stacking light violations – writing multiple violations on top of a single root problem. Cincinnati-area resident Jim McCarter lends a more charitable interpretation.
“I see it as evidence they are doing their civil duty,” says McCarter of how Ohio inspectors keep a close eye on operators’ trucks even as federal priorities shift states away from a primary equipment focus. Instead, more states are cracking down on traffic and hours enforcement, as reported in Overdrive’s August “CSA’s Fallout” installment. Those states – and to one degree or another, FMCSA, among others – believe it to be more effective in reducing accidents.
Operator Scott Carlson, with Regal Services, runs the state regularly and also appreciates the department’s focus on the truck. But he believes that younger officers of the “new school,” as he calls those who’ve come on board in recent years, are more apt to write minor equipment violations. “The old-school officers,” like a now-retired one Carlson knew who worked along Interstate 90 in the northeast part of the state, “might just say ‘fix that before you head out’ and be done with it.”
Lights aren’t the only maintenance priority in Ohio’s truck enforcement program, led by the Public Utilities Commission of Ohio’s Transportation Department, in partnership with the Highway Patrol. The state’s inspectors rank No. 2 for the percentage of violations written for tires, No. 7 for brakes and No. 5 overall for maintenance.
Queries to the PUC about enforcement philosophies received no response.
Tom Balzer, president of the Ohio Trucking Associations, notes that Ohio inspectors have “always been very aggressive when it comes to enforcement and inspection programs. A lot of our members have grown to be used to the heavy inspection presence.”
Mobile-patrol-type enforcement is Ohio’s M.O., with eight in 10 inspections in 2013 conducted away from a fixed location. Balzer says that could change, as he knows of investments being made in weigh station and inspection facilities across the state. An upgraded facility in West Ohio on I-70 recently reopened, and the state also is aiming for facilities “with prescreening and other technologies” to help better target carriers, he says. “There may be a slight shift back to weigh scale usage” for inspections, “but a lot of it will continue to be at traffic stops.”
Speculating about the preponderance of light violations, Balzer says PUC inspectors and highway patrol officers both work the road. The PUC inspectors “have limited power as far as when they can pull someone over,” he says. Without an ability to enforce speeding or traffic-law violations like a trooper, inspectors reach for other easy pickings.
“Running with a light out is like having a big old sign that says, ‘Pull me over’,” Balzer says.
Carlson says, “Ohio does more mobile patrol than any state I know. You do your job, you won’t have to talk to them too often.”
McCarter, however, relays an anecdote that suggests Ohio patrolmen aren’t always engaging in targeted enforcement of errant driver behaviors or equipment scofflaws.
Officers will post up in their vehicles “in the medians facing one direction or another,” he says. “They’ll sit there and they’ll count, and when your number’s up, you’ll get a random roadside inspection.”
He once was running at about 60 mph in a 65 mph zone when another hauler came by him “doing at least 75,” he says, as they passed a parked officer. The patrolman entered the highway and pulled McCarter over.
“He did the Level 1 inspection and went through everything,” McCarter says. “After he got all done, I said, ‘Out of curiosity, what tagged me to get pulled over on this random?’ He said, ‘You were number 10.’ I guess the guy that went past me was number 9.”
This randomized approach to inspections, if as widespread as McCarter believes, has an element of fairness, though in another sense it may miss violators like that No. 9 speeder.
Balzer believes that mobile enforcement aimed at clear violators is the most effective kind, but also sees the value in a random approach: “Sometimes enforcement comes down to very simple tactics – they count 10 trucks, and there you go.” The knowledge that inspectors are out there – visibly present, at least – keeps equipment and traffic-law compliance high in operators’ minds.
“Technological advances will help the enforcement agencies out a little bit more” in terms of focusing efforts better, he says. “When you have that preclearance, prescreening ability and that ability to adapt that preclearance to different scenarios, you can better focus your efforts and have a much more methodical process behind it” away from the road.
McCarter detailed another practice of inspectors that more than one operator has corroborated to Overdrive over the years.
“At the rest area on the east side of Columbus,” he says, if you pull in for a break and officers are present, “they swoop down on you, parking next to the cab of the truck. They’ll ask you for your paperwork and do a [Level 3 credentials] inspection,” which also includes a log book check.
Ohio inspectors also “love the rest areas on I-71 north of Columbus. They’ll station at the entrance to the weigh station coming into Ohio on the west side on I-70.”
Carlson also has seen this in the northern part of the state, at rest areas in both directions on I-271 around Cleveland. “They work both of those very hard,” he says. “They’ll sometime chase guys in from the road, or stand there and get you as you come in.” He adds, though, that he’s not seen in Ohio the more annoying practice, reported in some states, of officers “beating on a guy’s door to ask for a log book while they’re sleeping.”
McCarter guesses drivers have a tenfold greater chance of being inspected on all the major routes from Columbus up, including I-70, than south of the city toward his home base across the Ohio state line in Kentucky.
“On I-71 south of Columbus, there’s no roadside activity” to speak of, he says. At the Wilmington scale, officers are “real fair with everybody.”
Carlson generally concurs, adding that inspectors have improved in every way from earlier years, when past administrations at the state’s highest office seemed to want “a state trooper behind every milepost” watching truck traffic.
Drivers can do a lot to combat light violations, he adds, with a quick walkaround every time they stop. Lights can go out when you’re running, he says, “but a lot of these lights are off before the trip starts.” If you don’t catch them, you can bet that if your run takes you through Ohio, somebody else will.