Weigh station looks to tip the scales toward safety
For the first time, those trucks are being weighed and inspected at a stationary site in Rock County as the Wisconsin State Patrol tries to ensure that overweight trucks don't tear up Wisconsin highways and that unsafe trucks and truckers don't threaten the motoring public.
The inspectors in the State Patrol's Motor Carrier Enforcement Section at the truck weigh station in La Prairie Township cannot examine every truck.
But every truck gets weighed—and photograph-ed—at least once as it heads north on Interstate 90/39 through Rock County.
"Our mission is safety," Capt. Chuck Lorentz of the State Patrol said.
Just as trucks with equipment problems or sleepy drivers can cause accidents, roads beat up by overweight trucks can endanger other drivers, Lorentz said.
The motor carrier enforcement section decided to staff the weigh station from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday because that's when truck traffic is heaviest and about 80 percent of the accidents involving large trucks occur, Lorentz explained.
"That's not to say we won't have occasional staffing at the station on weekends or beyond those hours," he added.
Statewide, the motor carrier enforcement section has 13 scales and 90 field inspectors—supervised by 13 higher-ranking officers—to staff the weigh stations, conduct mobile enforcement and do yearly inspections of school buses, tour buses and human service vehicles, such as ambulances, Lorentz said.
The La Prairie Safety and Weight Enforcement Facility did not come to Rock County without controversy.
Residents and officials in La Prairie Township have been concerned about a variety of issues ranging from the development of fertile cropland and air pollution from idling trucks to aesthetics and the potential for criminal truckers to stay overnight in their community.
"I think from the start, none of us had an issue with the obligation and the requirement of the state to weigh trucks on the Interstate," Town Supervisor Alan Arndt said. "The contention we've always had is that a point-of-entry weigh station really should be at the point of entry."
Arndt was referring to the state line as the point of entry to Wisconsin. Truckers wishing to avoid the scales could divert onto Interstate 43 or surface roads to bypass the weigh station.
The technology the station uses dictated the location, but location should have dictated technology, Arndt contended.
Lorentz countered that not just technology but also the land requirements to allow for the large station and its long entry and exit ramps determined where the station was placed.
The land issue still is a sticking point for Arndt.
"Nobody likes to give up land for a weigh station," he said while acknowledging that the state cut in half the land it wanted to buy under eminent domain provisions.
"The sad reality is that the state can come in and change that with the stroke of the pen," Arndt said. "The state does whatever the state wants when they need to."
Weigh in motion
"Weigh in motion" is the name of the technology that allows every truck to be weighed and photographed, but only a relative handful are stopped for a second weighing and possible inspection.
"Time is money in the trucking industry," noted Sgt. Gary Bauer, the weigh station supervisor. "Frequent stops mean a lot of idling and wasted fuel."
A mile south of the weigh station, trucks pass over the mainline "weigh in motion" scales. If the scale detects an overweight truck—more than 80,000 pounds—the system lights an electric sign to tell the driver to stop at the weigh station.
As the truck enters the station, it passes over another "weigh in motion" scale. The truck's speed over the second scale is much slower than on the freeway scale, so the second weight is more accurate, Bauer explained.
The second message could be to pass slowly on through the station back to the highway or to stop for a certified weight and possible inspection.
Some trucks are selected at random for the full weigh station experience.
And some trucks are equipped with transponders in the PrePass system. Companies owning such trucks pay fees to participate.
The transponders tell inspectors if trucks' license fees are paid and if they have been cited for safety violations. The transponders communicate directly with the drivers. If "weigh in motion" detects too heavy a load, the transponder in the truck flashes a red light to tell the driver to stop at the weigh station.
A green light means they can bypass the station.
Some PrePass trucks also are flagged at random to stop.
Under the previous system, all trucks would have to stop at a weigh station if it was open, creating lines of idling trucks, Bauer said.
And because the old northbound weigh station near Stoughton had an entrance ramp that held a limited number of trucks, others would pass by when the ramp was full.
"If I had 12 to 16 trucks there, I'd look at all the other trucks going by while we're watching and weighing trucks that might be empty," Bauer said.
If an inspector selects a truck for a full, certified weighing, the driver pulls the truck onto a large scale pad that weighs a semitrailer truck at each of its three axle groups.
Each axle group has a weight limit, and drivers can shift their loads in a couple of ways short of actually unloading and reloading, Bauer explained.
A driver can, for instance, change the position of the tractor's fifth wheel relative to the trailer to adjust weight on an axle. If he can't get the weight correctly adjusted on his own, he calls a company such as J&W Transfer of Janesville to come to the station, unload and reload the truck.
"You're talking about possibly thousands of dollars in fines depending on the weight," Bauer said.
Typically, though, fines range in the hundreds of dollars, he added.
"We don't write that many citations. Most are warnings," inspector Travis Lauer said. "We're not out here to generate revenue. Our primary goal is compliance and education."
Besides weighing commercial trucks, the inspectors also examine trucks for equipment defects or problems and truckers' logs and licenses.
The weigh station's spacious inspection garage has two inspection bays with pits that allow inspectors to walk under the truck's entire length.
Previously, inspectors would have to lie on their backs on creepers to inspect trucks' undercarriages and suspensions. Some trucks are so low to the ground that inspectors couldn't crawl under them.
And, yes, inspectors actually kick tires to make sure they're properly inflated.
"A lot of the inspection is hands-on," Bauer said.
Return to road
Minor problems, such as missing reflectors or burned-out clearance lights, can be fixed elsewhere, Bauer said.
But if an inspector finds a problem that could endanger safety, such as a cracked air brake line, the driver must have it repaired at the weigh station.
That can be costly, perhaps as much as $1,000 for a mechanic's time and parts, Lauer said.
"If they repaired this stuff at their shop, which they should have done, it would have cost them a lot less money," he said.
Block Diesel Repair of Janesville regularly gets called to the weigh station, said Chris Timm, the business's office manager.
"Once we get called out there, it seems like we're there all day," she said, because more trucks will be found needing repairs.
Inspectors write up orders for repairs that Block Diesel's mechanics must sign to show all the work has been done, Timm said.
After La Prairie Township residents raised their concerns, the state Department of Transportation, of which the State Patrol is a division, agreed to monitor nearby groundwater to check for pollution and to control light, sound and noxious weeds.
Bauer plans an open house to introduce the station and staff to their new neighbors.
"Only time will tell if they're going to be a good neighbor," Arndt said. "Being a good neighbor has more to do with the entire system, not just one station.
"There's more to being a good neighbor than ‘Yeah, we made the weigh station smaller.'"
Much of the story of the new truck weigh station in La Prairie Township is in the numbers:
-- 6,000: Northbound heavy trucks passing weigh station daily on average, about 22 percent of total northbound traffic.
-- 10,001: Pounds, minimum to be classified as a heavy, commercial truck.
-- 80,000: Pounds, maximum legal truck weight. Each axle has a weight limit within the 80,000 pounds.
-- 180: Mile marker on Interstate 90/39 where the station is. Equates to Sunny Lane between Janesville and Beloit.
-- 1: Mile from first, or mainline, "weigh in motion" scale to weigh station.
-- $8.35 million: Cost of weigh station and site.
-- 20: Acres for total site.
-- 5,850: Square feet, size of office building and control booth.
-- 5,460: Square feet, size of inspection garage.
-- 24/7: Time that restrooms at the weigh station are open to the public, not just truckers.
-- 26: Parking spaces where truck drivers can rest for up to 24 hours.
-- 10: Hours a trucker must rest after being "on duty" for up to 14 hours, combining driving and non-driving work.
-- 7,789: Average annual number of large truck crashes statewide 2002 through 2006.
-- 7,370: Large truck crashes in 2007, a 5.4 percent drop from the five-year average.
-- 104: Average annual number of fatalities statewide in large truck crashes state 2002 through 2006.
-- 95: Fatalities in large truck crashes in 2007, an 8.3 percent drop from the five-year average.
-- 90: Percent of large truck crashes occur Monday through Friday.
-- 78: Percent of large truck crashes occur between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m.
-- 12: Hours weigh station generally will be open—6 a.m. to 6 p.m.—Monday through Friday.
-- 7: Employee positions assigned to weigh station. One inspector is on military leave, leaving the staff level at six.
-- 13: Scales statewide.
-- 90: Inspectors in the State Patrol's Motor Carrier Enforcement Section. Also, 10 sergeants, 2 lieutenants, 1 captain.