In the days before the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Compliance, Safety, Accountability program, drivers might not have batted an eye if an inspector did a quick walk-around and, finding nothing obvious to cite, waved them on their merry way without finishing a full inspection.
Today, though, traditional wisdom about inspections – best avoided, given the hassles and potential violations – has been upended. As any small fleet owner or independent knows, clean inspections are the only immediate way to improve categorical percentile rankings in CSA’s Safety Measurement System. The stakes are so high that it’s now common for carriers to offer cash bonuses for clean inspections.
A clean Level 1 driver and truck inspection improves carrier scores in most SMS BASIC categories of compliance measurement by offsetting or diluting, as it were, the weight prior violations exert in scores’ computation.
Without a clean inspection, the only way to discount the weight of prior violations is to wait for them to “age,” reducing the time weighting associated in the scores, before they drop out after two years.
Though the bite of those rankings has dulled a bit with congressional action last year to pull the scores from public view, recent reports in Overdrive have shown that they remain a part of the process of securing business for many.
The good news is that compared to 2011’s nationwide clean-inspection rate, the 2015 rate shows a near 10 percent gain. This means that compliance is improving or more states are doing what Mississippi Department of Transportation Office of Law Enforcement Chief Willie Huff says is common in his state: Finishing the job.
“Our policy is if you start an inspection, you should finish it, and do it fairly,” Huff says. No state performs a higher percentage of clean inspections than Mississippi, which in 2015 did 67 percent, which is two clean inspections for every one with any violation.
As a share of all inspections, clean inspections above 50 percent are present in only 11 states. Only one other state, low-inspection-intensity Montana, rates above 60 percent.
The national average rate of clean inspections has been rising steadily since the advent of CSA in 2010. Yet states such as Wisconsin, Connecticut, Indiana and Texas show clean-inspection rates between 18 and 24 percent.
Explaining the upward trends in clean inspections, Huff attributes it to a compliance culture among fleets. “They’re more safety-conscious, emphasizing it more through their communications tools” and other methods.
About half of Mississippi’s 2015 inspections were done at roadside, half at fixed locations. Some 200 full-time officers are dedicated to truck-enforcement, of which “75 are assigned portable units patrolling the 82 counties of the state,” Huff says. “They can do safety inspections and check fuel tax credentials on routes where they don’t have inspection stations. That 75, that’s their job, to perform random stops to check for everything.”
The other 125 officers are assigned to the state’s 16 scale locations where inspections commonly are conducted.
Some of the “random stops” Huff mentions aren’t so random due to means both low- and high-tech. Obvious violations admittedly are targeted, such as “appearance of the truck, is it maintained, clean in appearance, does it have all the mudflaps, does it make an abnormal noise.” The state also recently deployed “Smart Roadside” screening tools that Huff says could drive down the state’s clean-inspection ranking by focusing on problem trucks.
Mississippi has deployed DOT number- and plate-capture tools at the Kewaunee station near Meridian on I-20/59 and at two scale locations on I-10 at the so-called “NASA” station just into the state from Louisiana, and at Orange Grove just inside the Alabama state line.
“Virtual weigh station”-type weigh-in-motion scales also are equipped with readers in four off-interstate locations, Huff says:
• A two-lane road near Liberty in Southwest Mississippi.
• State Route 27 outside Vicksburg, north of Liberty.
• U.S. 82 near west-central Greeneville.
• U.S. 61 near Clarksdale in Northwest Mississippi.
When a truck crosses those areas, Huff says, “We have the weight, the company’s safety score, whether the tags are valid. We can sit 10 miles away and wait for the truck to come to us if we want to stop it.”
More and more, “technology is driving” inspection selection, Huff says, and “if it’s available out there, we’ll make as much use of it as possible. We might drop down that rung,” he says, referring to Overdrive’s state-by-state clean-inspection rankings.
For most drivers, he guesses that’s a good thing, even if it means a smaller share of clean inspections. “If we’re being more efficient” about selecting just those carriers that need inspection, and the others avoid wasted time, Huff believes that’s a win-win.
Find all of our state profiles, in reverse chronological order, going back through the 2016, 2015 and editions of the CSA’s Data Trail series, below: