Reining in the townies

Believe it or not, the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance is interested in protecting drivers and trucking companies from irrelevant inspections and having their pockets picked – especially when it’s money-hungry municipalities doing the picking. That was the clear message from a “town meeting” held at this year’s CVSA annual meeting. The two-hour session was dominated by discussion of what CVSA, which represents primarily state government agencies, can do to protect truckers from poor-quality inspections performed by local authorities.

In a session held immediately prior to the town meeting, Lt. Paul Claunch of the Arkansas Highway Police had reported on the work of an ad hoc committee formed to study commercial vehicle enforcement by local jurisdictions. Part of the committee’s work was a survey of CVSA members’ opinions on local enforcement. Claunch declared that 95 percent of the respondents “want the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to place controls on locals to prevent one-dimensional and revenue-generation-focused programs.”

The CVSA isn’t suggesting a flat prohibition against local enforcement of commercial vehicle safety regulations, but its members do have some ideas on measures that would, at least, ensure local officials are qualified to inspect vehicles fairly and intelligently.

Respondents to the CVSA survey were unanimous that local inspectors should be required to attend in-service training. They also believe that local officials should be required to conduct a minimum number of inspections per year, and most think local inspectors should adhere to the CVSA minimum requirement. The majority also favors mandatory participation in a training program run by the state’s lead agency that is the same as the one state inspectors must complete. And almost all members surveyed believe that either FMCSA or CVSA should implement minimum requirements for local participation that mirror those for states’ lead agency.

Of course, as one state official noted during the town meeting, skills and training aren’t really the issues.

“In our state,” this official said, “we have experienced problems with abuse, even though some [local agencies] are excellent at doing inspections. There is often a breakdown when the city manager comes to the police department and says, ‘We need revenue.’ Even well motivated officers can’t do the job right when they have been told to generate revenue to overhaul city offices and the like. We need to have some very strong controls put in place. Unless proper procedures are built into the process, we will have uncontrolled officials doing poor-quality inspections, and that will reflect on CVSA and downgrade what it stands for.”

Not surprisingly, many in the trucking industry agree. “We hate the idea of locals wanting to do inspections just for dollars, and not safety,” Don Tullos, senior corporate safety advisor for FedEx Express, said at the town meeting. “If complaints come in about a local jurisdiction and show that they are doing inspections just to raise cash, their state dollars should be cut. We don’t want cash cows all over; we want uniformity.”

By the end of the two-hour session, the clear consensus was that the only way to ensure quality, fair inspections would be to require local agencies to sign a memorandum of understanding with CVSA as state-level agencies do now.

CVSA could find FMCSA an ally in making this happen. Shortly before the town meeting, FMCSA safety chief Julie Cirillo told CVSA attendees that the agency recognized the “heartburn” local officials’ handling of inspections was causing. She concluded, “The traditional role of state Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program agencies is likely to change somewhat. The state’s lead agency is in the best position to coordinate a state’s commercial vehicle inspection program.”

So on the issue of poor-quality local inspections conducted for the wrong reasons, you have the states and the feds on your side. It remains to be seen, however, whether that will be enough.

John Baxter is senior associate editor of Commercial Carrier Journal. E-mail