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Why the mysterious decline in truck inspections after traffic stops?

Written by Steve Gursten Posted February 11th, 2014

Enforcement inspections following traffic stops involving commercial vehicles declines significantly  – but nobody, including the FMCSA, says they know why

Semi Truck stopped by the State Police patrol

There are different kinds of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMSCA) inspections for commercial trucks and buses. Two of the most prominent types are inspections following routine traffic stops, and roadside inspections, which occur at fixed locations. Inspections resulting from traffic stops are about four times more likely to reduce serious crashes, serious injuries and fatalities, than roadside inspections, according to the FMCSA.

If this is true, then why have traffic inspections mysteriously plummeted to nearly 50% of the number of inspections conducted five years ago?

An FMCSA report published in April 2013 estimated in that in 2009 (the latest available data), routine traffic inspections prevented more truck wrecks and injuries, and saved more lives, involving U.S.-based carriers than roadside inspections. This was even despite the fact that there were nearly four times as many roadside inspections than traffic inspections.

To put some concrete numbers behind this statement, consider:

  • The FMCSA estimates that 12.05 crashes are avoided per every 1,000 traffic inspections.
  • Meanwhile, just 2.7 crashes are avoided for every 1,000 roadside inspections.

Logically, this also translated into more saved lives through traffic inspections.

It is notable that at the same time that inspections have dropped significantly,  there has also been a significant rise in truck accident fatalities.  This is after the numbers declined for several years. Roadside inspections at weigh stations and other fixed locations have risen in every single year since 2006. At the zenith of traffic enforcement inspections, there were about 756,169 conducted (which was 2008). However, after a change in the data collection methodology that same year, they have plummeted, falling an alarming 48.7% to a measly 387,804 in 2013.

The FMCSA has recognized that this is a huge problem This is a problem that will literally cost lives. In response to this disturbing trend, the agency has been working closely with International Association of Chiefs of Police to increase police officer awareness of commercial motor vehicle (CMV) safety issues, and their familiarity with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs).

The two agencies say that they’re optimistic that through collaboration, they can give law enforcement the necessary tools to get dangerous truckers or shoddy commercial motor vehicles  off the roads before somebody is hurt or killed in a semi-truck accident.

The cause of the decline in traffic enforcement inspections is not entirely clear, although my own talks with law enforcement leads me to believe that it’s because budgets are being stretched, and inspecting and prosecuting these cases is expensive.

Also, the reduction in such inspections does follow a change in law that was enacted by Congress in 2005. This change allowed states to use funds under the Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program (MCSAP) for motor carrier traffic enforcement activities that do not culminate in an inspection.

So, while routine traffic inspections are indeed declining, it’s not clear what is happening with those enforcement stops that do not culminate in traffic enforcement inspections. Further, it’s not clear how effective traffic enforcement without inspections is relative to enforcement that does include an enforcement inspection of a semi-truck.

There is much to desired about this situation. What we know is this: Traffic enforcement inspections are far more effective in detecting FMCSR violations than ordinary roadside inspections. Perhaps this is because of the stationary nature and predictability of roadside inspections. Maybe those bad truckers who cut corners on safety are gaming the system and taking advantage of knowing when and where they’re going to be scrutinized by enforcement officials. As an attorney and safety advocate, this has always been my biggest criticisms with the large-scale inspections that are announced months in advance.

And, having litigated hundreds of serious truck accident cases, I also know that there are some very bad trucking companies out there that will do just about anything to dupe the system so they can keep breaking the rules. My sincere hope is that the initiatives between the FMCSA and law enforcement result in more “surprise” traffic enforcement inspections, and ultimately and most importantly, less innocent people hurt and  killed in serious semi-truck accidents.

Related information:

A look at trucking industry regulations

Steven Gursten Photo

About Steve Gursten

Attorney Steven Gursten is president of the Motor Vehicle Trial Lawyers Association and past president of the American Association for Justice Trucking Litigation Group. He has been named a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Leader in the Law" for his efforts to prevent truck accidents and promote national truck safety. Steve was also a Michigan Lawyers Weekly "Lawyer of the Year" for a record settlement in a truck accident case. He has received the top reported truck accident jury verdict and top reported truck accident settlement in Michigan for multiple years, according to published year-end compilations of all jury verdicts and personal injury settlements by Michigan Lawyers Weekly. He has been named a "Top 50 Super Lawyer," by SuperLawyers, is listed in Best Lawyers in America, and has been awarded an AV-rating by Martindale-Hubbell, which is the highest rating for legal ability and ethics. Steve speaks to lawyers throughout the country on truck accident litigation. He is a founding member of the Truck Accident Attorneys Roundtable, head of Michigan Auto Law, and has dedicated his legal career to making our roads safer.
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