‘Discretion’ is a big word ……

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Updated Apr 26, 2021
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North Carolina trooper and motor carrier inspector C.V. Barrett, during a mock truck inspection conducted in Charlotte in May 2015.

” … in this industry,” noted Jerry Waddell, in safety with the North Carolina-based Cargo Transporters truckload carrier. He said this at last week’s TCA Safety & Security Division meeting, in reference to the trucking industry and state patrol officers’ enforcement discretion, primarily, in their day-to-day interactions with truckers. The word discretion also applies on up the chain of command, though, clearly on display during the Q&A with Indiana and South Carolina enforcement reps Waddell moderated and which I reported on at this link.

After I returned from Charlotte, N.C., where the TCA meeting was being held, I was reminded of the notion by national reporting on officer discretion when confronting armed suspects. Though nothing within a trucker’s road routine is likely to ever rise to the drama of the encounter detailed in the following report, if you’ve got some time to kill, give it a listen:

In that instance, it’s discretion to not do something — namely, shoot — that the officer in question has been both praised and upbraided for, variously, by those within police forces and others around the country. In this case, his read of the situation told him the suspect wouldn’t shoot, ultimately. His judgment was, in this exercise of discretion of a kind — and good for him — correct.

It was based in part on his read of the suspect himself, certain cues of behavior coming from him. What does this have to do with motor carrier inspections? What you do throughout your encounter with officers may end up having a lot to do with the ending picture in the inspection report.

Discretion up the chain of command is easily seen in state truck enforcement department statistics. Indiana and South Carolina’s violation numbers tell that tale when you take the broad view. Indiana is a top ten truck crash state, according to Captain Jon Smithers — the state ranked No. 2 for all recordable crashes in our last, 2011-’12 crash-frequency analysis. As such, the commercial vehicle enforcement division, he says, focuses on behavioral violations known to be primary crash causation factors in its enforcement efforts.

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Here’s Indiana’s 2014 top violation priorities profile, with as in 2013 hours and speeding violations at the top of the list (for a closer look at Indiana’s enforcement program, follow this link). Percentages represent that violation category’s share of all the state’s violations marked on inspection reports:

South Carolina’s own priorities look more traditional by comparison, with maintenance items in the top slots, hours and speeding much farther down:

Indiana, furthermore, is a top-ten state in our 2014 inspection-intensity rankings, though it fell slightly from 2013 to No. 9 in 2014, among all states. South Carolina sits in the bottom half, conducting a slightly below-average 4 inspections per lane-mile within its borders, less than half of Indiana’s 9.

On the same day that the “Geographically undesirable” Q&A was held, officer discretion was likewise on display out in a downtown Charlotte parking lot where North Carolina State Patrol Motor Carrier Services Division officer C.V. Barrett ran through a mock truck inspection on a Con-way daycab and trailer.

Any North Carolina truckers recognize him? Barrett’s dad’s a trucker, “has been driving for 50 years,” he said by way of explaining the reason he got involved in “doing safety inspections,” which he said he enjoyed.

Barrett noted he leads his unit in out-of-service orders, but no longer does he lead necessarily in violations. Following the introduction of CSA he had something of a come-to-Jesus moment on violations’ new import for a driver’s record and how that can affect future employment and his standing with his current carrier. He’s careful about what he marks on inspection reports, never letting any out-of-service violations go but pointing out others to the driver that may not be safety-related. “Any violation I see, I’ll bring the driver out and point to what it is. I think it’s only fair,” he says. If the driver obviously cares about what he’s doing, Barrett says, and the problem is easily remedied, odds are it won’t appear on the final report.

I had a conversation yesterday with Landstar-leased owner-operator Gary Buchs. Based near Bloomington-Normal, Ill., Buchs was one of this year’s recipients of TA Petro’s Citizen Driver Awards honor. Buchs reiterated a lot of what Barrett had to say about how officer-driver interaction affects what may ultimately happen at the end of an inspection.

A lot of it anyone who’s been reading in this space will already be well aware of — taking pride in the equipment by keeping the truck clean, doing thorough pretrips and fixing problems like malfunctioning lights to avoid doing inspectors’ work for them … all of it’s on Buchs’ list. Landstar’s mandated quarterly full vehicle inspections, Buchs says, have uncovered issues that have kept him in the clear, for sure.

“Pay to have it inspected by a shop you like more often, every time you get service,” Buchs says. “I turn my mechanics loose and say, ‘If you find something and it costs less than $1,000, just fix it. If there’s any question about a brake lining, a shoe, anything that’s a safety issue, you just fix it.'” It’s good insurance, he adds, against the worst happening, with the added bonus that any inspection he’s more likely to pass with flying colors.

Such outcomes can have positive results. If it’s clear the man or woman at the wheel takes pride in the equipment, he or she might not get that speeding warning or ticket that initiated the stop and inspection, particularly if outside a so-called “probably cause state,” where officers must have a clear and compelling reason to initiate a stop. Here’s Barrett with his post-CSA personal policy on “warnings,” moving violations marked on inspection reports without a citation that can be challenged in court and, if the challenge is successful, removed from drivers’ official histories: “Now if and when I write warnings, I write a ticket.” And, that’s at his discretion to do so, as he describes it.

And then say they do find something wrong with the truck itself. Buchs chooses to take it as a matter of course. “They’ve prevented something far worse from happening,” he says. “That’s how I personally manage the emotion and business sides of an inspection. That second set of eyes sees things that we’ve looked at a dozen times and missed.”

And as Barrett noted, as have other officers I’ve spoken with recently, as in law enforcement, as in trucking. All too often, the bad apples have a tendency to unfairly define the bunch for the other side. More on this later. For now, here’s wishing you a smooth, safe, profitable next couple days and beyond.

Stay tuned for our CSA’s Data Trail update on enforcement trends around the county.