Local Governments Look To Cash In On Commercial Truck Inspections
Local police departments that get into the truck inspection business insist their only interest is safety. But truckers and traffic enforcement watchdogs believe there is another agenda in play — money.
“Local enforcement of commercial motor vehicle safety standards is about revenue, not about safety," said Mike Matousek of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association. "There is a greater chance that local law enforcement officials will wrongfully issue a citation. It can effectively force professional truck drivers out of the industry and impact consumers."
James Walker of the National Motorist Association has a related message: “This is a very complex area of enforcement. It is best done by Michigan State Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division who do this complex job, all day every day."
But under Michigan law, local police who have received training can perform truck inspections, and municipalities get to keep a percentage from traffic and safety fines imposed for violations of local ordinance. In contrast, traffic and motor carrier fines collected from state enforcement actions go to a state library fund.
The Michigan Municipal League has promoted the local enforcement strategy in a document called “Municipal Prosecution: Distribution of Fines and Fees.” The document features a string of dollar signs in the table of contents.
Hillsdale County's Somerset Township could be the next local government to jump on board. Its board of supervisors will consider an ordinance this month that would let the township keep most of the fines collected from truckers subject to local inspections.
“There are important reasons for our state laws requiring the majority of traffic fine revenue to go to the libraries," said Walker. "Revenue is the wrong reason for traffic enforcement. Safety is the only valid reason.”
The Michigan State Police perform the bulk of motor carrier inspections, but they also offer training that allows local police to inspect trucks traveling through their communities. That's what Somerset Township is now considering.
“We have a small police force here," said township Supervisor Tom Biel. "We are busy enough with everything else, but if there is a truck that is stopped, for whatever reason, we just want to be able to inspect it."
Police say they need to retain the money from fines to subsidize the inspections.
According to Capt. Michael Krumm of the Michigan State Police Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division, 30 officers from 22 local police departments have been through the department's two-week inspection training program. To retain certification an officer must conduct 32 “level one” truck inspections a year, and some of those inspections must cover hazardous material. A level one inspection can take 40 to 90 minutes.
Somerset Township is a community of 3,400 residents covering 36 square miles and has an annual budget of $1.6 million, of which $186,000 is spent on the police department. While U.S. Route 12 passes through the middle of the township and can be considered an alternative to Interstate 94, Biel cannot recall any major truck crashes that would warrant more safety enforcement.
It may be that the township wants to use truck inspection fines to beef up its police department in general. The officer who was trained in the state's inspection program was hired as a part-timer last fall, according to Biel. In February, he went through the inspection program and now his position is full time. To stay certified, the officer will have to spend 47 hours per year inspecting trucks.
Biel says inspections will probably not occur until the ordinance is considered. Truckers believe the local inspections will have a devastating impact on their business.
“Trucking citations can range from several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars and improper out-of-service orders can delay goods from being picked up and delivered," said Matousek. "The result is increased costs to ship the food we eat, the clothes we wear, and the cars we drive and in the end, consumers pay for it."
The Michigan State Police employ 103 officers who work exclusively on commercial vehicle enforcement. Inspections can occur on the road or at one of the state’s 14 weigh stations. Overweight truck inspections are a separate process, and require certified scales that can cost $10,000 per set, according to Krumm.
Somerset has no plans to purchase scales, and just doing truck safety inspections adds few additional costs. Biel says if it did not have an officer with the proper training, the township would have to rely on a commercial vehicle enforcement officer from the state, which adds to the time involved.
According to Krumm, only four of the 22 local police departments that had been trained met the requirements to stay certified last year.
One of these was the city of Marshall. Deputy Police Chief Scott McDonald says the city’s inspection program works well and the city has reduced the revenue incentive by imposing a $250 cap on truck fines. Matousek of the independent truckers group is not familiar with the Marshall program but is unimpressed by the cap.
“The government tells us $250 today but next year they could just as easily raise it to $350, and so on. And $250 is still an incentive if you’re pulling over every truck that comes through town. Heck, there might even be more incentive to pull over more trucks since the fine is capped,” he said.
Biel predicts Somerset’s ordinance will pass. The matter will be brought up at the Aug. 20 board meeting.