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Deputies Keep Eye on Truck Safety

August 7-13, 2002

Truck driver Bob Price did not think anything of getting flagged into a safety inspection checkpoint Monday as he drove his daily route in Loudoun County.

What he did not expect was a ticket from the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office for a safety violation. "I didn't think anything was wrong with my truck," said Price, a driver for AAA Recycling and Trash Removal Service in Fairfax County. "[The brakes] had a slight air leak. You wouldn't hear it unless you had your ear next to it. ... It's one of those things. If you're conscientious about your job, you want to know what condition your vehicle is in," Price said.

Price's truck was one of nine commercial vehicles taken out of service Monday morning for 40 safety violations, including cracked frames, tire defects and brakes with leaks or improper adjustments.

"You'll never have a better chance to see what's going on than by the side of the road," said Joseph Clapp, administrator of the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

Clapp, U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10), chair of the House Transportation Appropriations Subcommittee, and other officials from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Virginia Department of Transportation (VDOT) and the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) attended the commercial vehicle safety inspection checkpoint.

THE SHERIFF'S Office Traffic Safety Unit set up the checkpoint near Route 28 and Steeplechase Drive to conduct safety inspections and check fee and tax payments and driver credentials. Two full-time Sheriff's Office inspectors inspected 14 vehicles from 7 a.m.-12 p.m. with the assistance of three of seven trained deputies assigned to conduct the inspections on a monthly basis.

"There's so much construction and so much commercial enterprise, the volume is unbelievable. We're doing our best to make the roads safer by holding these people accountable," said Sheriff Stephen Simpson, who also attended the inspection. "Safety is a big issue in Loudoun County. The message we're trying to send out is if you're going to drive in Loudoun County, you better have [your vehicle] in order."

The Traffic Safety Unit used DMV's Infrared Inspection System (IRIS) during the checkpoint to detect trucks with malfunctioning brakes, under inflated tires and leaky exhaust systems.

"In the old days, they would pull every single truck over. This enables you to pull off the ones that are in violation of the law," Wolf said.

Lynwood Butner, DMV deputy commissioner, calls the use of the IRIS system a matter of "smart selection."

"We can help the enforcement community bring in potential safety concerns more efficiently," Butner said, adding that the system also helps VDOT. "We want to make sure the damage done to roadways is not over what is allowed, which increases VDOT's maintenance [costs.]"

THROUGH A GRANT, DMV purchased four IRIS units for $1 million and began using them in November 2000. The units, which are available to law enforcement agencies, include a camera and two monitors to videotape traffic heading in both directions on the roadway.

The camera, which is mounted on top of a DMV van, uses a thermal imager to detect the temperature of a vehicle's wheels as they move. The information the camera gathers is displayed on two monitors inside the van, one showing a color image to identify the vehicle and the second displaying an infrared image. The infrared image appears white as it catches the glow from the heat of brakes, drums and wheels working properly. Otherwise, the image is dark and cold, a clue for potential equipment problems.

"It's a great tool for them. ... Once they do one inspection, they might find unrelated problems," said Jose Vado, engineer technician for DMV Motor Carrier Services.

Vado monitored the screens on Monday and communicated any problems to sheriff's deputies stationed on Route 28, who in turn flagged drivers to the checkpoint.

"In Loudoun County, we focus on violations that either cause accidents or increase the severity of accidents," said Deputy Chris Rizzo, full-time inspector, along with Deputy Clark Jackson. Rizzo looked for problems with suspension and load securements and in the brakes, tires and frames of the trucks. "It's a matter of time before defects will lead to an accident."

NATIONWIDE, 14-15 people die a day from accidents involving trucks, Wolf said. "This is like an airplane crash every two to two-and-a-half weeks," he said.

The Traffic Safety Unit conducted 1,810 inspections during fiscal year 2002 with 60 percent or 1,088 vehicles taken out of service. The inspections involved 6,568 safety violations and overweight fines totaling more than $315,000.

"The numbers are high because we're looking for unsafe trucks to start with," Rizzo said.

The nine vehicles taken out of service were required to remain at the site until repairs were made.