Saturday, August 16, 2014

Inspections And How To Avoid Them

New Mexico should be one of the safest states states to drive in as far as accidents involving semi trucks, since it's the sixth highest state in number of inspections of commercial vehicles and drivers.

Rigdig, a company something like Carfax for trucks, assembled some US Department of Transportation data and says New Mexico conducts  eight inspections per lane mile (lane mile = they count up the miles in all the lanes, so I-25, I-40, US 550, etc., which have two lanes on each side, account for double the lane miles, as if there are two highways going side by side. I don't know why they'd give inspection data in this form. In searching the web for the explanation for lane miles it seems they are used mainly by highway engineers.)

The following chart gives some indication of what they are actually looking for when they inspect a truck and its driver in New Mexico. It's based on what tickets are actually written. (Number 2, "Hours," is drivers hours of service = log book.)

"Speeding" must be when they decide to inspect you when they stop you for speeding. I've seen state DOT officers inspecting trucks on the sides of interstates and service roads in Albuquerque, and I was inspected once at the foot of Tijeras Canyon. The officer didn't give me any tickets but told me to clean out my truck. There was a lot of stuff piled up on the passenger's side floor that he said restricted my sight out the little window in the passenger's side door, which many trucks have and are supposed to help eliminate your passenger-side blind spot, although I don't think they really do, at least I've never thought to take my eyes off the road or off my mirrors and look through that little window.

Incidentally, I've noticed something dangerous about street lights and blind spots. On many expressways throughout the country now, which I-40 and I-25 in the metro Albuquerque qualify as and are designed like, in some stretches there's one big row of very bright street lights going down the median, but none on the sides. It's getting darker in the morning now when I come back from Holbrook and I've noticed that those lights create a big dark shadow on the passenger's side of a semi.

If a car is in that shadow, and also in your blind spot - i.e., it's beside you and too far forward to pick up in your passenger side rear view mirror, but not far enough ahead to be seen over the side of your hood - the car is invisible. After I come down Nine Mile hill and pass the Coors exit, as I'm approaching the Rio Grande, I move two lanes to my right to be in the lane for I-25 north, and those lane changes bother me more and more every morning. There is often traffic speeding off Coors onto I-40 going into town and it doesn't take one long for someone to get into that blind spot.

There's a way of changing lanes that helps, that I learned from a safety director at a big company who was a retired state cop. He taught you to put on your signal, move a little into the lane, just your tires, wait a bit, then gradually move the rest of the way, which gives car drivers a chance to get out of the way. That's fine in most cases, except there are some very aggressive drivers, and late for work in the morning drivers, who will take any open space that's there, no matter if your turn signal is on, no matter if you're already partly occupying the space, no matter if your vehicle outweighs theirs 10 to 1.


If you look at New Mexico on that map above, the little car on New Mexico means 60 percent or more of the inspections are "roadside," meaning a team has gone out and set up an inspection site somewhere.

Between Albuquerque and Santa Fe you may have noticed a semi permanent site for doing this after you come up the big hill from San Felipe.

Some states have separate department of transportation police. In many states, as in New Mexico, a division of the state police is in charge of commercial motor vehicle enforcement. They run the weigh stations, where inspections are usually done, and for roadside inspections, they have a little trailer they pull around, with portable scales that they can haul out have you drive on one axle at a time.

Usually they just cordon off a part of a rest area parking lot and put a sign out on the freeway directing trucks to pull into the rest area, where an officer is waiting and either sends you back out to the expressway or directs you to "pull over there" and get an inspection.

I've been inspected at the rest area on the west bound side of I-40 just east of Moriarty, as you come down into the beautiful Estancia Valley from the hills. I was the last inspection of the day, one of the officers said. He chock-blocked my wheels and had me sit in the cab and work the lights and horn and brakes while another officer went through my log book and permit book and another one rolled under the truck on a creeper. This is all pretty standard and takes only 15 or 20 minutes, less if it's the last inspection of the day.

The officer on the creeper, a young woman, rolled out from under the truck and with a smile on her face announced that she had found a "cracked brake shoe." The officer in charge wrote me what they call a "fixit ticket," which means I wasn't put "out of service" but could proceed to the nearest truck stop and get the defect fixed. There's even a place on the ticket for the diesel mechanic to sign off on the repair. (If you are put out of service you have to call someone to come out there and fix whatever it is. A measurable portion of my life has been spent waiting for whoever it was to get there.)

I'd never heard of a cracked brake shoe. I proceeded to the Rip Griffins in Moriarty (now a TA) and since I was driving for a big company out of Tulsa had to call them and get the repairs authorized. The old mechanic working the road repair desk hadn't heard of a cracked brake shoe, either, nor had the mechanic at Rip Griffins, but he looked over my truck and finding no brake shoes with any cracks in them shook his head and signed off on the ticket that he couldn't find nothing to fix.

I've looked at many brake shoes since then and sometimes wondered if the young inspector hadn't been looking at that gap where the two brake shoes on each wheel almost meet and thought it was big crack. It doesn't sound all that plausible but it's the only explanation I've come up with.


New Mexico is one of a few states where the weigh stations never close; the big ones, that is, at the states lines on I-10, I-40 and I-25. Smaller ones, like at Shiprock, close at night but the big ones are even open Christmas Day. Most trucking companies, and more and more owner operators, have some variation of a system whereby, as you approach a weigh station, about a mile before you get there, a transponder in your truck communicates with a transponder hanging over the interstate on a big arm, and if your company has a pretty good safety rating -- which is based on your past inspections, tickets and accidents -- you're signaled to bypass the weigh station. They do it with computers.

A company called PrePass instigated this and has most of the country covered. They have agreements with the various states, including New Mexico's, to install the highway transponders and hook into their computer systems. PrePass is a wonderful thing. Most PrePass sites are in conjunction with weigh-in-motion scales embedded in the roadway, and when your weight is OK and it decides you're safe enough and you get that green light, a heavy load is lifted from your shoulders. Mine anyway. Most truck drivers I'm sure.
PrePass was the only bypass system for the first 20 years of it but now competitors are getting in on it by using your cell phone as the transponder. Somehow cellularly they communicate with the state or the federal computers and can give you the bypass signal in a few seconds. Here's what's on the iPhone "app" page for one of them, Drivewyze.

Apparently the image on the right hand side is the "ready" state and on the left is what you get when you get the bypas. Not shown is the screen that has the red light and says 'Pull into the weigh station and hope for the best.'

Since I went into business for myself I haven't had PrePass. I tried to call them a week or so ago while I was getting loaded over on Chappell Street (or Chappel Street depending on which street sign you're looking at) but they were already closed. I don't start work until 6 p.m.

I just now downloaded the Drivewyze app and am ready to try the trial version, which simply alerts you that you're approaching a weigh station. I'll see if that works out at the Gallup weigh station, which I have to pull through every night on my way back from Holbrook. To get the full bypass feature I'll have to buy a Drivewyze subscription at $15.75 per vehicle per month, according an article about it in Overdrive.

I don't know if I'd even get a bypass signal. Being a new company, around 18 months now, I just this summer had my "new entrant" safety audit, and haven't yet been issued an official safety rating.

I have to go through the weigh station at Gallup every night as I come back from Holbrook, and it would be nice to bypass it. It's costs me about five minutes, and I do a time sensitive run (have to be back before 6 a.m.,) so the five minutes is five minutes I have to make up, i.e., it wastes fuel, and it's nerve wracking to pull into any weigh station. I can't think of any good thing that has ever happened at one.

The last time I was inspected at Gallup in April the officer told me their computer flags me for an inspection every six months, so at least I know that. Still, as you approach the booth, where the officer sits staring at his multiple weight and nuclear materials and who knows what readouts and at his two computer screens, you just don't know if he's going to wave you on by or turn and slide open his window and tell you to pull around in back and take all your paperwork inside. Somewhere between Holbrook and Gallup a light could have burned out, an inside trailer tire could have gone flat, a mud slap fallen off, an air line might have started leaking and making that little hissing sound you can't hear but only when you slow down, you just never know.

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