A driver for Deaton Inc. approaches an inspection station. While other trucks slow down, exit, roll across the scales and slowly merge back into traffic, this driver breezes past the station with barely a moment’s thought or hesitation.
This driver isn’t a scofflaw. His truck is equipped with a transponder that identifies the truck and its owner as a participant in the PrePass weigh station bypass service. For the driver, the only intrusion is a small green light that illuminates to notify him that the transponder has been read and the truck is free to bypass the station.
“[PrePass] certainly is something drivers like very much,” says Jerry Crews, president and CEO of the 400-truck carrier in Birmingham, Ala.
Operated by Heavy Vehicle Electronic License Plate (HELP) Inc., PrePass has been adopted by about half the contiguous United States. Another system, The North American Preclearance and Safety System (Norpass) operates in about a dozen U.S. states. Between the two systems, weigh station bypass is available in most of the country. The big exceptions are most of the Northeast and several states in the country’s mid-section.
Covering the United States with two systems rather than one has its drawbacks. When traveling through Georgia and Kentucky – states that use the Norpass system – Deaton Inc.’s transponders give red lights, and drivers must enter inspection stations, Crews says.
A truck can use both systems, however. It’s the differing business models of PrePass and Norpass and an ongoing legal dispute over rights to transponder information that make the systems appear incompatible. (See “The power of one,” opposite page.)
These problems aside, the rapid expansion of electronic clearance is making interstate commercial traffic flow almost as seamlessly as passenger vehicles. And it’s the first stage in the federal government’s vision for a wireless network that will allow governments and commercial operations to share important information on a real-time basis.
1. As your truck approaches the weigh station, it is electronically identified and weighed.
2. A PrePass computer located in the weigh station verifies truck credentials.
3. A green light and audible signal from the transponder in the truck give the go-ahead to bypass the weigh station. If weight or credentials cannot be verified, the driver is signaled to pull into the weigh station.
4. Compliance sensors provide validation of bypass by PrePass-equipped trucks.
Carriers and states cooperate
Today, most states have installed mobile and fixed sites for roadside electronic screening. Using vehicle identifiers from transponders, these sites employ computers and a shared database to correlate vehicles and drivers with their respective company’s safety compliance and credential information.
The computer determines whether further inspection or verification of credentials is required. At the same time, weigh-in-motion (WIM) scales placed before the weigh stations allow trucks that are within weight limits to proceed. If everything on credentials and weight checks out, the driver gets a green light in the cab.
For carriers, a transponder-based clearance system involves either low or no up-front costs, depending on which of the two systems is used. That’s hardly the case for the states deploying the systems. Building the infrastructure and managing the databases and networks is very costly, even with federal highway funds granted for this purpose.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) sponsored the research and testing of electronic screening technologies in the 1980s at ports of entry and weigh stations along I-5 and I-10 in the West and the I-75 corridor through Kentucky. For nationwide deployment, however, the FHWA concluded that individual states alone could not manage the system, says HELP President Dick Landis.
HELP Inc.’s formation jump-started the deployment of pre-clearance technology. In 1993, representatives of public agencies and the truckload industry formed HELP as a non-profit corporation. Together with Lockheed Martin and a venture capital group ACS, the company developed the PrePass system.
“When you manage through governments, you end up with a complicated process of administration, requirements and procedures,” Landis says. “The states were also informed that there was no government money available for deployment.”
HELP provides states with computer hardware, transponder readers and database and technical support at no cost. HELP Inc. also verifies the carrier’s credential information on a quarterly basis. To recover its costs, the company charges carriers 99 cents each time a PrePass-equipped truck gets the green light, up to $3.96 per day. A green light incurs a charge only if the weigh station is open.
The Norpass system, which also is a partnership of several states and trucking industry representatives, operates differently. States buy their own equipment, and Norpass doesn’t charge transaction fees. The only cost to the carrier is an approved transponder, which costs around $45, says David Hunsucker, operations manager of the Norpass system.
Finally, Oregon operates its own system, called the Green Light program. Developed as a FHWA pilot program, Green Light costs carriers nothing for clearance privileges, and the state gives qualified carriers free transponders. The transponders can be enrolled in any Norpass or PrePass clearance program. Green Light and Norpass systems read identification signals from any standard transponder – except the PrePass transponder. The reason? PrePass won’t allow it.
“Technically, we’re basically the same,” says Landis of his PrePass system in comparison to Norpass and Green Light. “The differences that exist are in how they operate the business.” With PrePass, transaction fees fund facilities and equipment. With Norpass and Oregon’s Green Light program, those items are funded mostly from tax dollars.
Benefits to carriers
Even if some states must invest in facilities and equipment to operate a weigh station bypass system, there’s certainly a payback. By freeing up inspectors to concentrate on problem carriers, states need fewer inspectors to staff stations.
And carriers with good compliance reap rewards. The advantages to carriers include increased safety, time savings and driver satisfaction, say the executives of motor carriers that use pre-clearance systems now.
“I’ve always stated that it is certainly a safety risk for a 70-foot vehicle decelerating between 55 to 75 mph with other traffic to enter a scale,” says Dwayne Henn, vice president of safety at Werner Enterprises. “Certainly, the dangers become more evident when the same 70-foot vehicle is accelerating back to between 55 and 75 mph. Electronic clearance lets carriers that have satisfactory safety records bypass it.”
At some weigh stations, it’s not uncommon for trucks to fill the entire access ramp and sometimes back up the freeway. Besides costing the company money in wasted time and potential accidents, drivers become aggravated.
“Drivers almost end up on the highway because they don’t shut [stations] down fast enough when they get backed up,” says John Heckman, vice president of finance for Highway Express, a 200-truck carrier based in Richmond, Va.
Another safety benefit of pre-clearance systems is reduced driver fatigue, says Clifton Parker, president of G&P Trucking, a 600-truck carrier based in Gaston, S.C. In his team driver operation, Parker says that when trucks decelerate, the driver in the sleeper is startled and woken up.
“The drivers that run sleeper teams sleep better,” Parker says. “They haven’t had to go in and get inspected. And if a driver can get better rest, we all know that he drives better.”
Perhaps the most tangible benefit of electronic clearance systems is driver satisfaction. The PrePass system is programmed to flag vehicles for random inspections 5 percent of the time, says HELP’s Landis. But once drivers experience 95 percent more freedom from inspection stations, they naturally want to maintain that privilege.
Deaton Inc., for example, doesn’t give all drivers PrePass transponders. Crews uses the transponder privilege as a performance incentive for individual drivers.
“If a driver has problems getting his logs in on time, or preventable roadside inspections, we take it away from them. It’s proved to be very strong incentive,” Crews says.
No big brother worries
Some drivers and carriers might distrust bypass systems out of a fear that they allow Big Brother to keep tabs on them. Couldn’t authorites catch speeders by measuring time between weigh stations? Or use the data to audit logbooks? The truth is, however, that collected data is not used for law enforcement.
“Has the data ever been used for enforcement purposes? The answer is unequivocally no,” says Norpass’s Hunsucker. “Data has never been used in that fashion. It will never be used in that fashion.” In the Norpass system, only a database administrator – not law enforcement personnel – sees bypass event data, Hunsucker says. In addition, data is “destroyed” every seven days.
Likewise, PrePass says that it keeps bypass transaction data in confidence and that truck-specific data is used only for the purpose of managing bypass events. The data is neither disclosed permanently nor permanently retained after payment of transaction fees. HELP says that information collected at one PrePass site cannot be passed on to another, and PrePass has no device to record a driver’s speed.
Weighing the costs
The value of benefits varies from carrier to carrier, but the costs are quite predictable. Suppose you want to use both PrePass and Norpass. Norpass transponders will work with PrePass but not the other way around. Your costs, therefore, would be $45 per truck for a PrePass-compliant transponder through Norpass – unless you can get one free from Oregon or Kentucky – plus 99 cents a green light (up to $3.96 per truck per day) in PrePass states. A transponder battery lasts about five years.
Would the benefits of weigh station bypass – saving time, reducing decelerating and accelerating events and driver satisfaction – offset these costs for your operation?
If a carrier owns a transponder, it can register it in any electronic bypass program. The Advantage CVO (above), is sold by Norpass for $45.
The power of one: multiple transponders aren’t necessary
When Oregon started its Green Light program, state officials assumed that transponders, which emit vehicle identification signals, were essentially electronic license plates that could be treated as public information. That position has not changed, but the state no longer accepts PrePass transponder signals.
HELP Inc. sued Oregon, claiming that the identity from a PrePass transponder, which is owned by HELP not the carrier, is proprietary information. By using the signal in its Green Light Program, HELP claimed, the state was essentially violating its copyright. The case is still under review by a federal court.
The transponder that Oregon gives away free to carriers in its Green Light program can also be used in any PrePass jurisdiction if the truck owner registers it with HELP. The reverse is not true, however. The same dilemma applies to carriers that use a PrePass transponder when entering a Norpass jurisdiction. Some states have adopted a policy that they will only allow a transponder to work in their systems if they have permission of the transponder owner.
The solution to transponder interoperability is actually very simple. Buy your own transponder. By owning your own transponder, you can register that transponder in any jurisdiction – PrePass, Norpass or Oregon’s Green Light program.
The standard transponder, which works in any system, is a Raytheon-Delco Type II+. It costs nothing to register the transponder in a PrePass system, but carriers must first qualify and then pay the same fees as other PrePass members.
Oregon and Kentucky issue transponders for free to carriers who qualify for their pre-clearance programs. You can also buy transponders from Norpass for $45. HELP, however, retains ownership of its transponders but installs them at no charge as long as truck owners use the fee-based PrePass service.