"It's the week you just stay home because it's not worth getting your already ridiculous insurance rates driven up higher because a DOT guy needs to find something wrong with your truck."
"This is annual time off for me. I'm not playing this harassment game."
"3 day fishing time is here. Love these days."
While the element of surprise has its place in safety inspections, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) announces the dates of three of its four annual high-volume roadside inspection events months in advance. It also publicizes which rules inspectors will focus on during all four blitzes, though any aspect of driver performance or vehicle maintenance that the agency regulates is fair game.
This week’s International Roadcheck — which will focus on wheels, rims, hubs, and tires — was announced in February. That gave carriers plenty of time to get their trucks in order. Or plan a vacation.
It is no secret that many carriers sideline their trucks during announced inspection blitzes. This raises a few questions. How common is inspection avoidance? Which carriers are most likely to keep their trucks off the road during announced inspection events? And — perhaps most importantly given the potential safety implications — why does the FMCSA continue to announce the dates of most inspection events? Andrew Balthrop and Alex Scott answer these questions in a new study.
Carrier Size, Truck Age, and Inspection Avoidance
Comparing data from announced and unannounced inspection events, Balthrop and Scott find that 14-16% of single-truck carriers stay home during announced blitzes. The data also shows that the average age of inspected trucks drops considerably during announced blitzes, suggesting that many carriers with older equipment park their trucks when they know there is a good chance they will be inspected.
Nonetheless, the researchers endorse the FMCSA’s practice of announcing most blitzes. They find that the announcements encourage large carriers to perform upkeep on their equipment to maintain their safety scores. Compared to their single-truck counterparts, large carriers have much more to lose from taking their massive fleets off the road for several days. Large carriers also tend to own newer equipment, which helps explain the drop in average truck age during announced inspection blitzes, when many small firms stay off the road. The largest 1% of carriers accounted for 59% of total vehicle miles traveled in 2016, so increasing their compliance by announcing inspections is significant.
Balthrop and Scott also note that publicizing inspection dates should spur carriers with lower safety scores to perform anticipatory maintenance in hope of improving their scores.
Balancing Regulatory Goals Against Carrier Concerns
The pair find that some announcements are more impactful than others. Announcing an upcoming equipment inspection fuels a 1.8% reduction in vehicle maintenance violations over a two-month period surrounding each blitz, while announcing a driver compliance inspection (i.e. hours of service) produces a 1.2% drop in driver compliance violations that only lasts two weeks.
Notably, Balthrop and Scott find no evidence that unannounced inspections produce any of those positive spillover effects. While switching to four unannounced inspection blitzes per year would allow the FMCSA to issue more violations to carriers of all sizes, doing so would prove counterproductive if it increased crash rates and turned drivers away from an industry that many truckers feel is already too heavily regulated.
The FMCSA’s current approach is not perfect, as evidenced by all the 72-hour breaks drivers are taking this week. But, by announcing most inspections, the agency assures compliance by a large share of carriers without having to penalize them with a heavy hand.