Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Apple #735: Truck Weigh Stations

I have had a request!  Daily Apple reader Jamal and his friend Monique wanted to know how trucking weigh stations work. That seemed like a pretty simple question, but when I conversed some more with Jamal, it turned out that he and Monique were wondering, what is to prevent some truck from driving a ton of explosives into some city and blowing it up, as happened in Nice.  They were wondering if those truck weigh stations, by virtue of how they work, would catch something like that.

The second part of this question turned out to be really hard to figure out.

In pursuit of the answer, I have read a ton of truck-driving websites, training manuals, and chat rooms.  I've learned a fair bit about truck driving, a whole lot about truckers' antipathy for the police, the complicated and sometimes adversarial relationship they have with the companies for whom they drive, and I've read more than a few trucker tales (they weren't as good as I was hoping for, or I'd have shared some).  I'll try to distill what I've learned into some usable bites for you to nibble on.  Hopefully by the end of this, we'll have arrived at or close to the answer Jamal and Monique were seeking.



Trucks lining up to get weighed at a weigh station.
(Photo from The Lantech Blog)


What Weigh Stations Are For

I thought I knew how these things work, just from having seen them in action as I drove past.  I was wrong.

  • Originally the weigh stations were constructed to make sure that commercial trucks of 26,000 lbs & above were paying their required fuel taxes.  The weigh stations were built to weigh the trucks to make sure that people weren't trying to dodge those taxes even though their trucks might weight more than 26,000 lbs.
  • Now, fuel taxes are collected quarterly, so the primary purpose of the weigh stations is to make sure the trucks are not exceeding unsafe weight limits.
  • Each of the 3 axles of a commercial interstate truck has a weight limit, as does the total truck: 
    • Steer axle -- front tires on the truck -- < 12,000 lbs 
    • Drive axle -- back tires on the truck, beneath the front of the trailer -- < 34,000 lbs
    • Trailer axle -- tires beneath the back of the trailer -- < 34,000 lbs
    • Gross vehicle weight -- truck, trailer, all cargo -- < 80,000 lbs (sum of the 3 axles)
  • Some of those weights vary in different states, but those are generally correct for most states.  If your total weight exceeds 80,000 lbs, you need to get a special permit which costs money and which takes a lot of time, which can be expensive in its own way.
  • From what I've gathered, these weight limits are in place to protect the safety of other vehicles (more weight = more devastation in a crash) but mainly to keep the roads from getting driven deeper into the ground.
  • These rules about axle weight result in the drivers having to be obsessed not just about how much weight they're carrying, but about how it's distributed over the axles.  You can't just shove all 950 crates of potatoes in the truck and take off; you have to make sure it's distributed throughout the trailer so that none of the axles exceeds its weight limit -- and it also has to be secured so it won't slide around while you're driving. 

Weighing a Truck

  • If one of your axles comes in over weight, you might think that all you need to do is to re-balance the load, but you have to take into account the weight of the fuel, your weight personally when you're in the cab, the weight of the tires themselves, etc.  Sometimes the guy who loaded your crates of potatoes with the forklift has gone off to help someone else, so you've got to figure out a different solution.  
  • One trick is to use what's called the tandem sliders to change the position of the trailer axle (farthest-back tires) beneath the trailer.  Moving the trailer axle closer to the front means it takes weight off the drive axle and more weight onto itself.  Moving it farther back means more of the weight falls on the drive axle.
I need to move the [trailer tires] back – but just a little bit. It takes me a couple of tries, and I find that I’m stuck between two positions. On one, the drives are over, on the other it’s the trailer. Adam and I discuss options. We’re SO close. Maybe a DOT officer won’t care about 100 pounds. But maybe he will. That’s a violation and a fine. Both our record and our company’s record gets a ding for it. I don’t want to take the chance. We joke that Adam could lay across the dash when we go through weight stations. We figure we can leave our fuel below 3/4 of a tank to help.  
  • The fine for being over weight limits starts at $300 and goes up, plus you get a citation on your commercial driving record, which can make it more difficult to get a job with another company.  They're not sure they want to take the risk, so they decide to check their weights on certified scales, or CAT scales.  


Certified CAT scale, typically available at larger truck stops.  Costs $10 to weigh your truck. Drive up, park, go tell the scale operator your trailer number, then get your weight ticket.
(Photo from Somanymiles)

  • Most shippers have their own scales on site, but they're not certified to be accurate so they can be a little off.  If you want an official, totally reliable weight, you can drive your truck to a certified CAT scale.  If your truck comes in with a different weight at a weigh station and you get hit with a fine, CAT will pay the fine.
  • CAT scales are at larger truck stops, and you do have to drive your loaded truck to get to one, so you have to hope there's one close to where you are, and especially for there not to be a weigh station in between you and the CAT scale.
  • Our trucker Robin took her truck to the CAT scale, paid the $10 to use it, and the weights came in just under.
  • The time it took to shift the cargo, re-balance the axles, weigh, re-balance, weigh again etc. until getting to an acceptable weight: 8 hours.
  • The CAT scales give you an official ticket, showing the weight of the 3 axles and the gross weight.  You have to have this with you in your truck in case you get stopped, either by a DOT officer or by a state police officer or by local police.  More on this ticket in a bit.

 
Ticket from a CAT scale showing the 3 axle weights and gross truck weight.
(Photo from Somanymiles)


Types of Weigh Stations and What Happens There

  • You've seen weigh stations along the highways a million times.  There's an exit ramp with a weigh station sign that says open or closed.  When it's open, the trucks have to pull off the road onto the ramp, drive slowly in front of the little house-like thing that is the station, something mysterious happens, then they drive slowly away.  
  • Sometimes the stations get really backed up with waiting trucks, sometimes only a few are being weighed and other trucks are passing by, and sometimes the thing isn't even open.

Weigh station in use
(Photo from Weighing Review)

  • Different weigh stations work differently.  The old-school kind weigh one axle at a time.  These are time-consuming, since you have to drive one axle onto the scale, get that weighed, inch forward so the second axle is on the scale, get that weighed, then pull farther forward to get the final axle weighed, and then all 3 are added together.
  • Other weigh stations are "one-stop" scales, meaning you pull your entire truck onto the scale and it takes all the weights at once. You do still have to come to a complete stop, though.
  • A newer method which is becoming more common is the "weigh-in-motion" scale or WIM.  With these, you drive slowly over the scale but you don't have to stop.  Some stations don't even require the trucks to pull off the road; the scales are installed beneath the highway so the trucks can drive over them at speed, and the scales record the weight.
  • Another new technology allows trucks to bypass the weigh stations.  They work like the E-Z Pass that you buy to let you go through toll stations because you've already paid ahead of time.
  • First there's a thing with sensors in it that hangs out over the road and scans the vehicles going under it. 






EZ-Pass system used to tell truckers whether or not to pull over & get weighed.
(Photos from Baby & Honey Bear

  • Then there's the part in the vehicle, in this case, a transponder.  If you've got a transponder in your truck, the sensor arm thing will communicate to the transponder.  If it flashes green, you don't have to stop.  If it flashes red, you do.  If you blow past the weigh station even though your thing flashed green, the DOT cruiser will come after you and pull you over and the officer will not be happy.
  • If you do have to stop to get your truck weighed, yours can be one of the lucky trucks that is randomly or not-so-randomly told to pull over for an inspection.  If this happens, you will let loose a stream of curse words, and then try to put on as polite a face as possible when the officer begins speaking to you.
  • The list of things for which your truck may be in violation is very long.  I'm sure I haven't  uncovered even half the things that could get you flagged for an inspection.  But here are some of them:
    • Improper placarding of cargo -- if you've got hazardous stuff on board, you have to have a placard displaying such
    • Equipment is in disrepair -- could be anything from a bad ball bearing to missing reflective tape to rust or chipped paint. This could be your company's fault, as they may not keep up with maintenance as they should and they require you to drive a truck in bad shape. Too bad for you; you'll be on the hook for the fine.
    • Not having a spare tire in the rack beneath the trailer 
    • Unsecured tandem sliders -- this is legitimately dangerous
    • Evidence of erratic or improper driving -- pretty much the same sorts of things that get cars pulled over: seat belt not on, speeding, improper lane changes, failure to signal, etc.
    • Signs of possible impairment due to drugs or alcohol
    • Something about you looks funny
    • You're hauling something the officer wants -- one officer told a guy that, the next time he came through the weigh station, have one of those honey-baked hams he was hauling on the front seat.  He did, the officer took the ham, and the trucker didn't get a fine.
  • Once you've been told you're getting inspected, the officer will ask you for all sorts of documentation that you'd better have handy.  Most truckers have a binder that contains all the official documents they need. Those documents may include
    • Commercial driver's license
    • Cab card -- you are licensed to drive this particular cab
    • Proof of insurance
    • International Fuel Tax Association license (IFTA) -- proof that your company is paying those fuel taxes
    • Scale ticket -- remember the ticket you got from the CAT scales? That thing.
    • Bill of lading -- record describing the cargo the truck is hauling, where it was loaded, and its final destination
    • Medical certification -- this is for truckers hauling greater weights or hazardous cargo; proves that you don't have seizures or aren't going to have a heart attack any moment, that sort of thing
    • Log book -- where you record who the shipper is, what time you left, if you stopped, where & when, etc.  All your movements.  You can't have driven for more than 11 hours at a time; you are required to stop and rest so you don't get fatigued and increase your risk of accidents.  If your company has an electronic log, they recommend you keep a duplicate paper log too.


Sample IFTA license, showing where you're allowed to drive your truck because your company has paid fuel taxes in those locations.
(Image from Iowa DOT


Sample log record showing what the truck driver did when while hauling this load.  You're not allowed to exceed 11 hours' driving time so you don't wind up too tired to drive safely.
(Image from Wikipedia)

  • If anything about any of these documents looks funny, you could get a fine.  If the weights come in too high, you could get a fine.  If the truck has a rust spot and the officer picks at it and finds there's a greater problem going on, you could get a fine.  If you look cross-eyed at the officer, you could get a fine. 
  • The fines are not small.  They can be $2,000 or more.  
  • From what I've gathered, it's usually the driver who has to pay these fines, not the company they drive for.  Plus, you get a citation on your CDL record.  Too many of those -- and it sounds like it doesn't take many before it's too many -- and your company could decide you're too much of a risk and give you the boot.  Not only does that put you out of a job, but you might also have a hard time finding somebody else willing to take you on.
  • There's also the time issue.  The time you're stopped at a weigh station, waiting to get weighed, getting weighed, being pulled over and getting inspected -- all that is lost travel time.  It means your cargo might arrive late at its destination if you don't find some way to make up for it.  Some janky entitled Target customer like me is going to be ticked off that her vacuum cleaner didn't arrive exactly on time because you got pulled over and inspected for having rust on your back bumper.  Janky customer yells at Target, Target yells at the trucking company, trucking company yells at you, and you get fired.
  • To hear truckers tell it, the chance of getting inspected is a total crapshoot, but if it happens, chances are that it won't be good.  Truck drivers hate being inspected, hate being told essentially that they're doing their job wrong, hate the time it takes, hate even risking getting inspected.  So a lot of truckers will do what they can to avoid weigh stations.

Avoiding Weigh Stations

  • Truckers call weigh stations "coops" because they look about as small and not-sturdy as chicken coops.  There's a site called coopsareopen.com that tells you all sorts of stuff about the weigh stations in each state -- where they're located, how much the toll roads charge, where the cops lie in wait to look for speeders, etc.  If you pay to join, you can find out which weigh stations are open and which aren't, and what route to take if you want to dodge the weigh station entirely.


Typical Coopsareopen map, showing the major highways in each state -- this happens to be Illinois -- with red dots indicating the presence of weigh stations.  You have to pay extra to find out if they're open or not. 
(Map from Coopsareopen)

  • This is very valuable information because not having to stop or even slow down to get weighed saves you time. Avoiding open weigh stations also dramatically reduces the chances you could get flagged for an inspection.
  • Some truckers who know they're over weight but can't fix that problem will take another route to avoid weigh stations.  If they know their company's equipment is shoddy and won't get it fixed, they'll avoid the weigh stations.  A few of them do it just because they hate cops (and yes, some truckers still call the cops "smokey" or "the bear"). 
  • Avoiding weigh stations is so common in some parts of the country -- there are certain highways in Texas where it's really easy to avoid highway weigh stations by driving on surface bypass roads -- that those communities are trying to figure out how to pass legislation to keep truckers from doing this.

From the Officer's Point of View

  • All this is from the trucker's point of view.  They're the ones talking online the most about weigh stations and how they work and what to do while you're going through them, etc.  The police don't say very much, publicly, about that sort of thing.  So there's some guesswork about what they're thinking.
  • But I did find one page that's written from a police officer's point of view.  It tells local police officers not to be intimidated by the "big rigs."  It says they can't afford to be afraid to pull over the commercial trucks when necessary because they may be hauling illegal drugs, or smuggling some contraband, or involved in human trafficking.
  • It's also happened that trucks that have stopped at rest stops near the border crossing will have smugglers stash narcotics or other illegal stuff on the truck without the drivers' knowledge.  Occasionally, smugglers will force drivers to carry stuff for them, on threat of violence.
  • So, this police site tells officers, when you stop a big rig to inspect it, you may possibly be preventing two crimes, one intentional and one not.


State police cruiser having stopped a semi-truck on the highway.
(Photo from Police Mag

  • The site gets into detail about things to look for, and it lists a pretty wide range of stuff.  But ultimately it comes down to one thing: does anything look suspicious?  Are there cross-outs on the bill of lading, or hand-written notes on it?  Do any of the documents look less than official?  Are there any unauthorized passengers?  Does anything about the truck itself look less than official?
  • This goal of possibly uncovering truly illegal activity might be the real reason why they're so anal & picky about the placards on the side of the truck, or rust on the bumper, or whatever.  They might be thinking, hey, this could be a sign that this trucker's not legit, or the stuff he's hauling is illegal.
  • The big tip-off, they say, is how the trucker looks and is acting.  Here are some tips they describe:
Is the driver nervous? Is he sweating? Is he rubbing the back of his neck? Did he just urinate on himself when asked what his shipment was? (It happens.)  Several years ago a large cash seizure was made from a tractor-trailer on Thanksgiving Day. The big rig was being operated by someone who didn't have a commercial driver license (CDL), and was wearing Bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, flip flops, and multiple gold chains. Other than the big indicator of not having a CDL, the huge indicator was the fact that the driver did not look, dress, or act like a trucker. Just as you do when you're out stopping cars for drug interdiction, ask yourself, does the story match the person?

Understand that most truckers are hardworking souls just trying to make a living, but they do commit traffic infractions, and some are involved in criminal activity. (from Police Mag)
  • This is fairly typical probable cause-type stuff, with exhortations to be on the lookout for any indicators that all is not as it should be.

 

But Does It Work?

  • So there's no concerted, let's-sweep-all-semis-from-here-to-Chicago-for weapons, but that might violate a constitutional amendment or two, and various other laws about search & seizure.  What the police can do is pull over or ask to inspect a truck that has apparently violated some rule or other.
  • This doesn't seem like a very reliable way of catching seriously bad stuff.  The potential for someone to sneak by without being caught seems pretty great.
  • On the other hand, the police have caught criminals on their way to doing some pretty nefarious things, and the criminals did give themselves away.  Here are a few examples:
Oct 11, 2015, El Reno, OK -- An Arizona truck driver was pulled over for swerving and weaving while driving. He said he was exhausted from driving all the way to Georgia to help his girlfriend move. So the police suggested he pull over to take a nap.
"Then, out of nowhere, Vasconcelos told authorities he wasn't a criminal and they could check his truck if they wanted to."
Deputies figured they'd better take him up on that, so they searched his truck. They found a loaded pistol on the front seat, and a large metal box forced into the mechanism of the engine which contained $3 million worth of heroin. (KFOR News channel 4)
  • Here's another example:
June 21, 2016,  New York City -- Police pulled over this vehicle as it was about to enter the Holland tunnel because it had a cracked windshield.


(NY Post

Once pulled over, the officer noticed a pistol on the front seat and asked the driver to exit the vehicle. He discovered that, in addition to the pistol in plain view, the driver had been literally sitting on a loaded .45. Further searching found a cache of weapons including an AR-15 assault rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, 4 semiautomatic handguns, multiple ammunition clips totaling 2,000 rounds, including one labeled "Merica."
The driver and his friend traveling with him said they were on their way to a heroin hotel in NYC to rescue his daughter who was hooked on heroin, and any other addict who wanted to be rescued. (NY Post)
  • So, no terrorism connections here, but a pretty obvious indicator that something less than legal might be about to happen.

The Upshot

  • So there's nothing about the weigh stations that is specifically scanning the cargo of a locked truck to see if it's carrying weapons or explosives or anything like that.
  • But what does seem to be going on is the DOT officers who operate the stations and the state and local police who patrol the highways are keeping their eyes open for any indicators that there might be something shady in the back of that truck -- and that could be anything from weapons to drugs to people, and in one case, rotten food.  Most often, if there's something illegal in the truck, it's drugs.
  • So the truckers might absolutely hate and despise weigh stations for the way they can wreck their run and possibly their jobs.  But it seems we do need somebody keeping an eye on things, for that rare exception when somebody really is doing something terrible and should be stopped.

Bonus material: Here's a trucker story posted on Reddit:

My Dad is a truck driver and he likes to tell a story about a Keebler cookie driver who was getting teased on the CB once: he said that the other drivers kept asking him questions, like "Do elves really make the cookies?" And "Are you an elf?" And "How tall are you, anyway?" Dad says this truck driver let the good natured ribbing go on for a while, and then he said, in a deep voice, "Listen, I only drive this truck for the paycheck. I don't ask any questions. I just back the truck up to the tree, and they fill it."


(Photo posted at Whiting Door)


Sources
Howstuffworks: Weigh Stations
What Are Truck Weigh Stations For?
How Do You Go Through a Weigh Station?
So Many Miles: Scales and Weigh Stations
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ek0wIptbV9Q
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dkG4H2ZS_TE
Truckers Avoid Weigh Statsion by Dodging the Scales
Coops Are Open
Trucking Industry Forum: Dodging Scales
OTR Pro Trucker: Trucks and Drug Smuggling, a Dangerous Combination
Cleveland Plain Dealer: State Troopers Pull Over Truckloads of Rotten Food
NY Post: 3 arrested with loaded guns, body armor at holland tunnel
Florida Highway Patrol: 2013 Trucking Manual
Washington State Dept of Licensing: Commercial Driver Guide
Illinois Standard for Overweight Trucks
KFOR: Man Tells Police to Search His Truck, More than $3 Million Woth of Drugs Recovered
Police Mag: Stopping Big Rigs
Land Line: "You Don't Mind if I Look Inside Your Truck, Do You?"
Trucking Truth: Staying Alert and Fit to Drive
San Diego Tribune Forum: $3.59 Million to Haul Cargo of Illegal Immigrants
Life as a Trucker: Operating Illegally upon Owner's Request
Life as a Trucker: Crazy Trucker Stories
FBI Archives: Inside Cargo Theft
WBUR Here & Now: Trucking Companies Try to Prevent Contraband Cargo
Trucking Truth: Should Drivers be Blamed if Criminals of Shippers Put Illegal Cargo in Their Trailers?

2 comments:

  1. Totally engaging ,educational and fun to read. Thanks Juliet! Learned a bunch and now know 80 grand is the limet. NO wonder all our roads are shot so fast.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great site! I am loving it!! Will be back later to read some more.

    Full Truck Load services in Laredo

    ReplyDelete

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