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Danger on the Roadways

Inspection team places nearly one-third of big-rig trucks out of service.

Fairfax County Police Det. C.C. Snyder, with the Crash Reconstruction Unit, approaches the driver of an incoming tow truck.

Fairfax County Police Det. C.C. Snyder, with the Crash Reconstruction Unit, approaches the driver of an incoming tow truck. Photo by Bonnie Hobbs.

— It wasn’t rush hour, but I-66 east was backed up as far as the eye could see, as big-rig truckers warned their buddies about a commercial-truck inspection happening on Route 28 in Centreville.

But that didn’t stop a team of law-enforcement officers from inspecting 88 trucks on Thursday, May 30, and placing 29 of them — nearly one-third — out of service. They also discovered and cited the truckers for 249 other violations.

“No truck will leave the lot until it’s repaired, rechecked and deemed safe to travel,” said Fairfax County police spokeswoman Lucy Caldwell from the inspection site in a parking area of E.C. Lawrence Park. “This is a massive, labor- and resource-intensive operation, but it’s important.”

The inspections ran from 7 a.m.-1 p.m. and were a collaborative effort of Motor Carrier Safety officers from the Fairfax and Prince William County police departments; Virginia State Police; Spotsylvania, Stafford and Loudoun sheriffs offices; Town of Herndon police; the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles; and the U.S. Department of Transportation.

“There’s a national truck check, the first week in June, and we do ours before that one,” said Caldwell. “There are 13 inspection stations, with at least two officers per station, and they’re going through these trucks with a fine-toothed comb. The trucks were either chosen for inspection because of obvious infractions or, at random, from Route 28.”

Hilario Delgadillo of JSC Construction of Manassas Park was driving a roll-off truck from Chantilly to Maryland, hauling concrete forms for an apartment complex, when he was sidelined. “It was kind of a shock,” he said. “I didn’t know why they pulled me over.”

But when the officers explained, he was pleased to cooperate. “This is to keep everybody safe, so it’s fine with me,” said Delgadillo. “I don’t mind it, one bit.” Besides that, he said, things on his truck needed to be repaired.

“Two of the brakes were out of adjustment and the right-turn signal on the passenger-side front wasn’t working,” he said. “And one of the hubcaps was leaking oil — they contain the oil for the brakes. So we’re fixing all these things.”

One of the repairmen was Jesse Brown, a service technician with The Truck Shop, a division of Roadrunner Wrecker of Sterling. “We do road service and get trucks back on the road,” he said. At the inspection site, he was busy replacing a brake hose on a fuel truck.

If not, said Brown, “It would start leaking and the driver would lose brake pressure. Then an alarm would go off and the truck would have to stop on the side of the road.” He said the surprise inspections are a good idea “to keep the trucks safe, because there are a lot of them out there on the road that are pretty dangerous.”

Adalberto Justiniano was carrying off-road diesel fuel from Leesburg to Arlington, around 8 a.m., when he was pulled over. “I thought, ‘What’s going on? What’s happened,’” he said. “I was driving under the speed limit but, when an officer tells you to stop, you do.”

He, too, said the inspections are necessary. “I’m happy [to comply] because it can save a lot of lives on the road,” said Justiniano. “But they need to have hot dogs and Gatorade for the drivers because I’ve been here three hours now, waiting for the mechanic, and I’m hungry and thirsty.”

Also temporarily out-of-service was an unloaded, 28,000-pound dump truck being driven by Julio Garcia. He normally hauls dirt for residential and large commercial projects but, that Thursday morning, he had other plans.

Ironically, Garcia was driving from Manassas to a Sterling repair shop to get the truck fixed when his vehicle was flagged down for an inspection. “The front axle moves more than it should because the U bolts in the axle spring are loose, so the bolts need to be tightened,” he said. But he didn’t mind the inspection, he said, because “sometimes, drivers don’t know what’s wrong with their trucks.”

Meanwhile, mechanic Jorge Calderon was replacing the brake-control box on a dump truck. “There are a lot of accidents,” he said. “But this way, the police can control the vehicles’ safety; that’s good work.”

Also helping were several auxiliary police officers, including Chuck Foster. “We’re managing the traffic flow on the lot,” he said. “When a truck comes in, we record its license-plate number and the company it represents and direct the driver to an inspection station.”

Fairfax County police Lt. J.P. Palenscar and Sgt. Mike Tucker oversaw the inspection operations. “We’ve put a good number of trucks out of service today,” said Palenscar. “[The infractions included] contaminated and bad brakes, overweight or overloaded trucks and steering problems.”

John Saunders, with the Spotsylvania County Sheriff’s Office, sidelined a dump truck belonging to Isamar Hauling Inc. of Herndon. It was bringing dirt from Rockville, Md., to Ashburn for a residential building project before being pulled over.

“The wheel hub outside was kind of wet, which told me there might be a problem,” said Saunders. “The wheel seal inside the tire failed and is dumping out grease all over the braking surface. It’s kind of scary because it takes away the surface’s braking efficiency.”

Yet that vehicle’s driver, Eddie Arana, said the truck inspections were “wasting [the drivers’] time because we’re working — we have a job to do. We’d volunteer to take a day free when we’re not working and get things repaired. I didn’t have a problem.”

But MPO Dan Johnson, of the Fairfax County Police Department’s Motor Carrier Safety section, had little sympathy for Arana. “When he’s out on the public streets with a 60,000-pound dump truck, he has to comply with the laws of Virginia and the code of federal regulations that govern trucks,” said Johnson. “His truck is unsafe to be on the road with other drivers.”

Whether it’s Saturday or Thursday or a driver is working or not, said Johnson, his vehicle “has to be safe for road travel. And my job as an inspector is to see that that happens and, therefore, prevents accidents, injuries and fatal incidents.”

Saunders then noted that “all the wheel seals” on Arana’s truck were “shot.” That meant axle grease was leaking out onto the brakes, said Johnson. “That’s a huge problem,” he said. “When the brakes are applied, it creates heat from the friction and, at a certain temperature, that grease will catch on fire. Brakes that don’t work can’t stop, and the truck could run into somebody.”

That’s why the work of the Motor Carrier Safety section is vital, said Johnson, but it’s tough keeping up with it all. “There are almost 400 square miles in Fairfax County and we have just four, full-time truck inspectors,” he said. “We had another one, but that position was cut in 2008 because of budget constraints.”

Ideally, he said, they’d like to have about 10 inspectors because, “with all the thousands of truck drivers in Fairfax County and only four of us, the odds are, they’re going to get away with their violations up to the point where they have a fatal crash — and then we will be called out. But our goal is to take that dangerous truck off the street before that happens.”