Some Roadcheck lessons are clearly missed

There are certain things that mark the return of spring as surely as the pages on a calendar. The first spark of the lawn mower, Major League Baseball, and the tree pollen that plugs my sinus cavity, just to name a few.

Then there’s Roadcheck.

The annual 72-hour inspection blitz coordinated by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) comes as no surprise. Its dates, scheduled each year since 1991, are widely publicized. This is meant to be an educational initiative as much as enforcement effort, a reminder of the out-of-service criteria that applies to every truck and trailer rolling down the highway.

Most fleets clearly get the message, too. The majority of the equipment that rolls through the scale will receive a passing grade this year, as it does every year. Trucks and trailers that have already secured a coveted CVSA decal to mark a successful inspection within the past three months are waved along with little more than a passing glance.

But it’s troubling to see that Roadcheck results remain as predictable as the event itself.

During the 2020 Roadcheck blitz – rescheduled to Sept. 9-11 because of last spring’s pandemic-related chaos – North America’s inspectors looked at 50,000 vehicles. Most of the equipment also received the in-depth 37-step Level 1 inspections. And when all was said and done, 20.9% of the equipment was placed out of service.

Inspected Canadian vehicles recorded a 19.9% out-of-service rate in 2019. In 2018 it was 20.4%. And in 2017 it was 19.3%. In the decade before that, rates stubbornly floated in the range of statistical margins of error, no higher than the 22.1% in 2014 and no lower than the 17.8% in 2009.

One in every five pieces of equipment. Year in, year out.

Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that trucks are grounded for familiar reasons. Brake system defects and brake adjustment issues continue to dominate more than 40% of recorded out-of-service violations.

If a cornerstone of the Roadcheck initiative is education, some lessons are clearly not being absorbed.

There will always be some fleets that pay little attention to compliance, of course. While the out-of-service criteria is designed to set a minimum allowable threshold, there are some operators who base all their maintenance decisions around the related standards that apply to push rod stroke, tread depth, and the like.

Each year I also hear reports of drivers who are actually encouraged to park equipment during the 72-hour event, or take to the back roads to bypass local inspection stations during other inspection blitzes. They’re the same operators who probably look to avoid enforcement teams at the best of times.

Then there is one inescapable truth – mechanical things break. They have since Thag noticed a crack in the first stone wheel. And such problems are more likely to emerge when a truck is at work rather than when it’s idling in a fleet yard.

Yes, perfection is clearly too much to ask for. But is it too much to hope that we could make gains toward a measurable and lasting reduction in the out-of-service totals? Perhaps fleets would be well served by digging deeper into their violation reports and searching for the root causes of mechanical and driver issues alike.

The coops will be open no matter what maintenance teams and drivers decide to do.

  • The Roadcheck inspection blitz runs from May 4-6, with a special focus on lighting and hours of service.

John G. Smith is the editorial director of Newcom Media's trucking and supply chain publications -- including Today's Trucking, trucknews.com, TruckTech, Transport Routier, Inside Logistics, Solid Waste & Recycling, and Road Today. The award-winning journalist has covered the trucking industry since 1995.

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