Roadcheck inspections: To avoid or not to avoid, or both?

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Updated Apr 30, 2021

Updated April 28, 2021, with poll results and more reporting ahead of the May 4-6 Roadcheck event.

Judge it against the last time we asked a similar question, during Roadcheck last year, and you might think a hugely greater number of owner-operators were planning to sit out next week's three-day inspection blitz this time around. That last poll question, after the event in September of 2020, showed barely 15% actually on vacation for the week, having planned it and took it in advance. Here's what we got over the last month or so since this question was asked in the original version of this 'Channel 19' post April 8. 

Almost a fourth of owner-ops were planning to take a vacation for the week to avoid the hassles associated with inspection – delays, for most, violations and the chance of the dreaded out-of-service violation for others. Another five percent, too, would be off the road for planned major maintenance and/or shop inspection, a tack taken by owner-operator Mike Crawford of Long Lane, Missouri, every year over the last several, as you'll see.Almost a fourth of owner-ops were planning to take a vacation for the week to avoid the hassles associated with inspection – delays, for most, violations and the chance of the dreaded out-of-service violation for others. Another five percent, too, would be off the road for planned major maintenance and/or shop inspection, a tack taken by owner-operator Mike Crawford of Long Lane, Missouri, every year over the last several, as you'll see.

Yet those two polls were asking different questions. ... Big difference between did and plan to, after all, between intention and actual action. It's the latter that holds more meaningful results for all manner of analysis, including what we've tended most often to do over the almost 10 years the CSA's Data Trail series has been in effect – that is, to look for patterns and trends in enforcement after the fact that highlight what particular jurisdictions are in fact focusing on, with the hope that helps you prioritize your own attention in those areas as needed. 

[Related: Roadcheck preps, in the state where 2020 inspections were up, not down like everywhere else]

For instance, we can glean a good bit from inspection data about just which states tend to pull out the stops during Roadcheck itself. The following map originally ran last year, attendant to this story in advance of the rescheduled inspection event in September. (Isn't it just positively wonderful? Two Roadchecks in 8 months? ... Attentive readers will sense the, er ...)   

Likely Roadcheck hotspots | The chart, based on 2019 data, shows that during the then-traditional Roadcheck month of June, 36 of the 48 continental United States performed an above-average number of monthly inspections. Just how far above could well be an indication of boosted Roadcheck inspections. Some were far above their monthly norm, such as Rhode Island, with a 121% jump. Consider the states with darker shades on the yellow-red spectrum as candidates for increased inspection activity during the annual Roadcheck spree.Likely Roadcheck hotspots | The chart, based on 2019 data, shows that during the then-traditional Roadcheck month of June, 36 of the 48 continental United States performed an above-average number of monthly inspections. Just how far above could well be an indication of boosted Roadcheck inspections. Some were far above their monthly norm, such as Rhode Island, with a 121% jump. Consider the states with darker shades on the yellow-red spectrum as candidates for increased inspection activity during the annual Roadcheck spree.

At once, data can only take you so far. Most owner-operators, for instance, obviously aren't shut down during the Roadcheck event. As one-truck owner Gerald Wood put it in the comments here, it's revenue and profit opportunity, not the chance of an inspection, that dictates his own downtime: "I've always worked through 'Safety Blitz' week, but then I'll work the Holidays, too, and solely take time off during traditional slow periods or when the truck requires maintenance." Spring is most assuredly not one of those traditional slow periods, last year's anomaly notwithstanding.  

The rest of this story clearly illustrates data limitations, too. If you missed its original airing, I hope you enjoy Mustang Crawford's tale of having his Roadcheck avoidance ... and eating the compliance aspect of it all at the same time. That story follows: 

Trooper at computer watching truck cross scales inspectionsResearchers at the University of Arkansas and Michigan State set out to answer the question of whether announcing inspection events in trucking had the desired effect. Generally, they found, the answer is yes, particularly with respect to improved equipment compliance, more "durable" than improvements in driver behavior, as it were. That is, owner-operator and fleet investment in equipment in anticipation of Roadcheck and other events proves longer-lasting in the numbers than any changes in driving behaviors that are measurable.

Old hand Mike "Mustang" Crawford and his independent business won't be on the road May 4-6 this year, which just so happens to coincide with the annual Roadcheck event of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance. For years he's used the time in a manner that feels in sync with what an announced inspection spree intends to incentivize. "I take my truck in and have the shop go over it," he said, including performing any needed maintenance on the 1994 Freightliner.

When May rolls around this year, Crawford said, he'll have about $5,000 saved and earmarked in part to "new leaf springs on my front axle." The stress on the front right from a "flattened" spring is "giving me some wear on my steer tires" not exactly commensurate with the 60,000 miles he's got on them. 

His rationale of not-exactly-sitting-out-but-sitting-out-nonetheless when it comes to Roadcheck reminded me of a study recently published by researchers from the University of Arkansas and Michigan State. It looked at inspection data to determine whether announced enforcement events like CVSA's Roadcheck, Operation Safe Driver and Brake Safety Week translated to improved compliance or not. The paper's title? "To Announce or Not to Announce? Organizational Responses to Varied Inspection Regimes."

[Related: Invest in inspections now to save money, hassle later]

Conclusions, as with most academic papers, do not fit in one box. A generalization in the introduction proposes two basic ones, though. 

... we find that large firms significantly improve their compliance in anticipation of announced periods of intense monitoring, and the effects persist weeks after the event. However, small firms and firms with old equipment -- firms for which it would be costly to comply -- temporarily cease operations during announced inspection events to avoid the investment required to comply or the cost of being detected noncompliant. 

Yet it's not that simple, is it? Crawford's example offers a third path -- a way plenty safety- and cost-conscious owner-operators have their avoidance and eat their compliance, too, as it were. 

To their credit, the researchers acknowledge the likelihood of variations beyond strictly statistical bounds. It comes during statement of a hypothesis they later set out to prove. 

Compliance and avoidance decisions are made jointly based on their cost relative to one another, but the costs ... are largely determined by separate considerations. ... Whether announced periods of increased inspection intensity have a deterrence effect depends on whether the compliance effect outweighs the avoidance effect. There is likely to be heterogeneity in the response of firms to announced inspection events.

To my layman's reading -- yes, different trucking companies are likely to respond in different ways, depending on factors too many to name. The report goes on:

While observed compliance will increase on average during an event, firms for which compliance is the costliest and avoidance is the most viable will be the most likely to avoid an inspection event.

What might be lost in the numbers analyzed by the researchers is what folks like Crawford consider when they avoid the three-day Roadcheck. For him, the potential costs of an inspection can be high indeed. "The age of my truck, being a 1994 model," may well make the possibility of a violation higher as parts age. There's the basic hassle factor of being tied up in an inspection while still on a delivery timeline. If the worst happens and "they find something and it can't be fixed on the site and it has to be towed," it gets ever more costly, too.  

By sitting out the event in his home area of Long Lane, Missouri, "I'm around Springfield" near mechanics he knows well, where a thorough going-over and scheduled maintenance can be done as cost-efficiently as possible. On his own time, too. 

And "I don't have to be towed," of course, he added.   

There's a lot more to the researchers' analysis, though -- and a lot of complicated statistical analysis, for you math geeks. You can find a copy of it via this link. 

Salute to a shop

Mustang Crawford -- who "never leaves a brief message," as he kindly reminded me yesterday -- can do some maintenance himself, but not a whole lot when it comes to jobs needing a heavy lift. He takes his Freightliner most often to MHC Kenworth in Springfield, always to Detroit for his Series 60, and lately often enough to a "newer place," he said, Truck Component Services, or TCS, in nearby Strafford, Missouri. TCS is a Peterbilt dealer and heavy-truck-salvage specialist. 

He gives high marks to the service manager there, Jesse Atwell, for an approach perhaps exemplified by something Crawford observed as it was getting on quittin' time on the day when he had his transmission replaced there. With mechanics all occupied about 4:30, "Jesse wasn’t just sitting back behind a desk," Crawford said. "He was out there sweeping the floor for everybody while the mechanics were trying to get everything done."

He describes TCS as positively "old-school. I had a wheel seal leaking and called Jesse. I asked him, 'How soon can you get me in?'"

Came the reply: "How soon can you get here?" 

Crawford started the 50-minute run when he got a call from Jesse. "He said, 'Cody is waiting on you. When you get there,  back into the ramp on bay 4. There’s a truck in there, but we’ll fix you on the ramp.'" They drained the grease behind the leaky seal, put in new grease and a new seal. "They put everything back together, cleaned up the brake, charged $342 and that was it. They were done with me in an hour and a half or so." 

Here's the TCS website. If you visit, tell 'em Mustang sent you. 

[Related: Heading off the diesel aftertreatment demons]

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