Admittedly, truck safety inspections are one of those topics (like tax law, insurance coverage, and federal regulation) that doesn't stir up a lot of excitement. Enforcing truck safety regulations is something that largely takes place outside of the general public's consciousness, but that doesn't make it unimportant.
The Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) is a nonprofit organization that aims to prevent commercial motor vehicle crashes, injuries, and fatalities. Additionally, according to its website, the organization believes that the best way to improve road safety is through collaboration between governments and members of the trucking industry. Toward that end, the organization hosts an annual three-day enforcement program called International Roadside Inspection which finds and penalizes thousands of trucks and/or drivers for Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) violations.
However, while this is commendable work, this inspection is only 3 days out of the whole year. If CVSA's feature event issues thousands of violations every year, doesn't that mean the rest of the year there are tens of thousands of unsafe trucks on the roadways?
But before we dive into any issues with the CVSA's International Roadside Inspection, let's take a step back to discuss this annual inspection blitz, so that we're all on the same page.
What is the CVSA International Roadside Inspection?
Every year, for three days, thousands of CVSA employees, law enforcement members, and volunteers inspect as many commercial vehicles and drivers as possible. Simultaneously, the non-profit conducts various educational initiatives "targeted at motor carrier, vehicle, and driver safety."
The inspection is mostly focused on the US, but as commercial trucks also cross into Mexico and Canada, inspection sites are also in those countries. The goal is to ensure that every commercial truck and driver is fit to operate according to FMCSA's Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).
The non-profit releases the dates for the roadside inspection about a year in advance. Then several months before the blitz week, it also announces what particular section of the full inspection, inspectors will pay special attention to. For example, the next International Roadside Inspection is scheduled for May 16-18, 2023, but at this time, inspectors have not announced the focus area for 2023's blitz.
In short, the industry has a big giant safety test that everyone knows about at least one year in advance. Certainly, everyone passes, right?
Why Are the Dates of the International Roadside Inspection Announced in Advance?
Many people assume that surprise inspections are more effective than planned inspections, but that doesn't seem to be the case for commercial trucks. According to at least one researcher:
“Over the course of a year, there’ll be 2 million inspections of 3 or 4 million trucks out there. The average rate of inspections is pretty low. It’s not uncommon for truckers to go years without having an inspection. With this low inspection intensity, the FMCSA has sort of a problem of, how does it get anybody to abide by the regulations?"
"They do this by announcing the blitz. This does two things. On one side, it allows everybody to prepare in advance. There’s a bunch of anecdotal evidence out there that people do prepare for these blitzes in advance. They will have their trucks inspected beforehand for any problems. They’ll time maintenance and upkeep in advance to make sure that their vehicles are in order. They’ll be a little bit more cognizant of the driver-side regulations. One thing we notice in our study is that hours-of-service violations really drop during these extensions, because people see them coming. They don’t fudge the books in any way.Andrew Balthrop, Research Associate at the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business.
Basically, since the regulators announce the dates early, companies prepare for the International Roadside Inspection by having their fleets privately inspected. However, should we assume that because fleet owners are preparing during the months leading up to the safety blitz that by the time the actual test rolls around that every truck is in tip-top shape? (Hint: No.)
Some Owner-Operators Independent Drivers Elect to Avoid the Blitz
One way to avoid failing a test that you know you can't pass is to simply not show up.
While studies show that the blitz creates a longer period of well-maintained commercial vehicles, the same studies also show that there are "5% fewer owner-operators on the road than you otherwise would expect [compared to normal days]” during the blitz.
What does that mean? Well, owner-operators are individuals that start their own trucking business with a tractor (the front of a semi-truck) that they personally own. An unavoidable aspect of running a small trucking business is that owner-operators don't have the massive amounts of funds to maintain their trucks as a commercial fleet does.
Think of it this way. Large companies like Amazon and Walmart don't even bat an eye at replacing a damaged brake line. To these corporations, it is just budgeted for and is essentially an irrelevant cost. However, for someone that only has one truck to run routes with, replacing a brake line is a much greater financial burden.
Safety inspections force trucks to cease all operations until the violation is corrected, so a small but significant number of truck drivers skip the blitz. These drivers might know exactly what is wrong with their vehicle, or they might not want to risk learning that something is wrong. Either way, dodging the blitz allows inadequate trucks/drivers to continue operations, hoping they are lucky enough to not cross an inspection point for several more months.
- Everyone knows about the safety blitz a year in advance
- Those most likely to fail to seem to take themselves off the road during the blitz
Is a Safety Blitz Still Successful When it Finds Thousands of Trucks that Must Be Removed from the Roads?
With a year to prepare and the worst of the bunch taking themselves off the road for 3 days, it becomes difficult to imagine that anyone could possibly fail their inspection.
Yet, each year, this 72-hour blitz of commercial vehicle and commercial driver inspections finds thousands of violations and places thousands of both trucks and drivers "out-of-service," which means they cannot operate until the violation is adequately addressed. Additionally, inspection data strongly implies that trucks are better maintained in the months before and after the blitz, this annual event ends up being a win-win.
Essentially, FMCSA gets a ton of drivers and vehicles properly adhering to the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) without having to issue millions of violations. It is basically an annual reminder for all of North America that proper vehicle maintenance and driver credentials are not optional and FMCSA will enforce the CFR.
Since It Is so Effective Shouldn't This Higher Volume of Truck Inspections Be Standard All Year-Round?
A non-profit (CVSA) runs the International Roadside Inspection and must rely on law enforcement and citizen inspectors for assistance. True, the blitz is a well-established tradition that averages 15 vehicles inspected per minute. But, why does the enforcement of federal safety regulations rely on a non-profit in the first place?
Currently, commercial vehicles will be randomly tagged to stop at weigh stations for an inspection, and several trucks receive "out-of-service" orders outside of the annual blitz. However, if more staff members were available to inspect commercial trucks year-round, truck fleets might feel the need to inspect their vehicles and drivers more frequently, not just the month before the blitz.
Additionally, if the standard year-round inspections were already at a higher volume, the blitz could be that much more effective when law enforcement and volunteers join in for those three days. For instance, CVSA's 2021 program inspected "more than 40,000 vehicles" and the inspectors "had to remove 6,710 commercial motor vehicles and 2,080 drivers from roadways." That means 1 in every 6 inspections resulted in an “out-of-service" violation.
A greater base number of inspectors operating year-round, assisted by law enforcement for an annual 3-day blitz could result in inspecting more than 50,000 vehicles, instead of 40,000.
Moreover, if there were higher rates of inspections year-round, owner-operators wouldn't be able to simply dodge a blitz to continue operations. Their chances of being tagged for an inspection would increase. Sure, only 5% of these vehicles seem to disappear during the annual inspection, but owner-operators tend to drive older trucks than the big commercial fleets. Older trucks need more maintenance and often have more problems, so they could have numerous violations compared to a new truck with only one safety issue.
It Is Folly to take Pride in "Increased Safety" if the Conditions are Still Extremely Dangerous
The bottom line is that thousands of people lose their lives in commercial truck accidents every year.
In 2020, commercial trucks accounted for 9% of all the vehicles involved in fatal crashes and 5% of all the vehicles involved in crashes with injuries and/or property damage. Moreover, even though 9% seems small, that is over 4,000 deaths due to commercial truck accidents in just one year.
Take some time to consider how many semi-trucks you see in a normal commute to work. I personally drive a mere 11 miles to and from work and see at least 10-20 trucks each way. It is alarming that every morning and evening at least one semi-truck or truck driver I pass could be unfit for operation.
Here is another way to look at these numbers. What if your lights didn't come on 1 out of every 6 times you flipped the switch? What if your car only started 5 days out of 6? Would you consider either of these to be reliable products? Of course, not. CVSA bragging that its annual blitz finds and removes safety violations in every 1 out of 6 inspections is not a win.
Given that we all share the road with truck drivers, is it too much to ask that 1 out of 6 don't have an issue that, if caught, would prevent them from legally driving their vehicle?