WSP catches truckers trying to skirt I-5 scale house

Some seek to avoid safety inspections

By John Branton, Columbian Staff Reporter

Published:

 
photoA tow company employee places straps to lift a truck trailer after its rear wheels became stuck on a sharp turn south of La Center in April. The driver had taken rural roads to bypass the safety inspection station on Interstate 5 northbound in Ridgefield, an official said.

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There would have been a scrunching noise and a lurching sensation, and maybe the revving of a big diesel engine and some foul language.

A California trucker, rolling north on Interstate 5, had wanted to avoid being signaled into the Washington State Patrol’s Port of Entry truck scale house and safety inspection station on I-5 in Ridgefield.

So he decided to take some back roads and go around it.

The side trip ended on the morning of April 4, at the quiet intersection of Northwest Timmen and Spencer roads, just south of La Center.

As the driver tried to make a tight, narrow turn in the wooded area, the left-rear wheels of his long, heavily laden trailer sank into the gravel shoulder and were hung up on the guardrail.

The truck trailer was anchored there by the force of gravity; only some fancy tow truck work would lift it free.

A passer-by telephoned officials. Corey Turner, a commercial vehicle enforcement officer (CVEO) based at the scale house, drove to the scene.

Turner said he spoke with the trucker, who admitted he’d tried to avoid the scale house but was evasive about why.

“I never could get a straight answer,” Turner said.

There’s no law that prohibits truckers from taking these back roads, including to avoid the scale house, and truckers know it.

But CVEOs like Turner, specially trained sheriff’s Deputy James Naramore and some other certified police officers and troopers have the authority to pull commercial rigs over and conduct safety inspections on them anytime. They don’t need to see a violation first.

Turner escorted the trucker and his rig back to the scale house and conducted a full inspection.

Strangely, the truck checked out to be safe. Turner found no mechanical problems with the rig, and the driver’s logbook indicated he’d had enough down time to rest.

If the trucker figured he’d save time and money by his detour, he was badly mistaken, for three reasons:

• Like all truckers caught avoiding the scale house, he got a full inspection that can take an hour or more.

• Also, “He did pay a fairly significant tow bill to get out,” Turner said.

• A Clark County Sheriff’s Office deputy ticketed the driver for alleged second-degree negligent driving, which carries a fine of $550.

It was a tough lesson, but at least the rig’s trailer hadn’t been damaged. The driver, Mandeep Sangha, who works for Bains Trucking, based in Sacramento, took his ticket and drove away.

Harp Bains, who was working as a dispatcher for the family-owned business last week, said all the company’s drivers are told not to avoid scale houses. He said such an incident hadn’t happened before the one with driver Sangha.

“I don’t know why he did that,” Bains said. “I have no clue. If you’ve got everything correct, there’s no reason to avoid the scale.”

The towing bill alone cost $1,700, and the company and Sangha each are paying half, Bains said. Sangha must pay the $550 negligent driving ticket himself, Bains said.

Enduring aggravation

The Ridgefield truck inspection station, which is operational 24/7, is set up to protect the motoring public from big rigs with bad brakes or failing tires, loads that are too heavy or could fall off, lights that don’t work or other dangerous mechanical problems. CVEOs can order truckers to stay there until repairs are made.

The officers also order out of service truckers who have had too little sleep or are under the influence of alcohol, methamphetamine and more.

Many truckers and the companies they work for have highly professional safety programs and have no problem with being inspected, officials say. If there’s something wrong with their rigs or drivers, those companies want to know about it because of the liability and insurance costs that are at stake.

Bill Basaraba, a supervisor at Mitchell Brothers Truck Line in Vancouver, chuckled when asked about the problem.

“We don’t let our drivers sneak around scales,” he said.

The company has GPS equipment that tracks its trucks’ locations.

“We can bring them up on the computer any time we want to,” Basaraba said.

The company’s trucks have stickers that indicate when inspections have been done, which can mean a quick look-over and pass through the scales.

And they have transponders that identify each truck to CVEOs, who can quickly access information about the truck, driver, company and safety inspections as the truck approaches the scale house. If it’s a good report, truckers get a green light on their transponder and can keep going up the freeway without stopping.

“It saves us time and it saves us fuel,” Basaraba said.

Mitchell Bros. also has an incentive program involving CVEOs’ most thorough inspections.

“We have a bonus program in place,” he said. “If our drivers pass a Level 1 inspection, they get a $100 bonus.”

Referring to truckers who sneak around the scales, he said: “They are just fooling themselves. They are not getting away with anything. Just extra time, extra fuel, extra expense.”

Even so, plenty of drivers decide to sneak around the scales, Turner said.

“It’s an everyday occurrence,” said Turner, a veteran officer who said it’s been going on for many years. “It is a big problem.”

And many folks who live along the side routes have complained for years about the big rigs rumbling past at all hours.

“It rattles their houses,” Turner said. “It’s noisy, thumping.”

In April, Deputy Naramore and CVEOs gave cross-training on commercial vehicle enforcement to police officers from nearby Ridgefield, La Center and Woodland.

Trucking is vital to commerce, as is safety, but the reasons why some truckers choose to avoid the inspection station often remain a mystery.

“I often don’t get a straight answer,” Turner said.

Are they born rebels who dislike authority and even resent safety rules? Do they have something to hide, or think they might? Are they running behind and think they’ll save time? Dog-tired with a logbook problem?

In this terrible economic downturn, with soaring fuel prices, is there not enough revenue to make repairs the officers might order before the truckers can continue on their way?

Whatever the reason, Turner said, some truckers have bad attitudes about the scale house.

“It makes no sense to me,” Turner said. “They tell us straight out that they don’t like us and don’t like coming through.”

John Branton: 360-735-4513 or john.branton@columbian.com.