State Police run truck-safety dragnet at FedEx Field

Maryland State Trooper TFC Antonio Austin inspects a cement truck during "Operation Tailgate." State Police have set up a dragnet at FedEx Field to pull 1,000 trucks off the Capital Beltway for a surprise safety inspection.
Maryland State Trooper TFC Antonio Austin inspects a cement truck during "Operation Tailgate." State Police have set up a dragnet at FedEx Field to pull 1,000 trucks off the Capital Beltway for a surprise safety inspection. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

— Just after dawn Tuesday, law enforcement officers began yanking hundreds of trucks off the Capital Beltway and funneling them to an inspection lot a long touchdown pass from FedEx Field.

The truck-safety dragnet pulled over 420 rigs and resulted in 12 drivers and 87 vehicles being taken off the road. Offenses ranged from falsified log books and drivers spending too many hours behind the wheel to bad tires and defective brakes.

"Within an hour, drivers from Maine to Florida will know we're out here," said State Police Capt. Norman Dofflemyer as the first truck pulled into a makeshift inspection lane at 7:24 a.m. "They get on the radio and on their phones. News travels fast."

Truckers who tried to evade the checkpoint by taking back roads in Prince George's County were picked up by roving police patrols and escorted to the inspection site. Drivers who ignored the flashing detour signs and blew past the stadium exit were chased down and ticketed.

Many drivers who were flagged had the option of getting some sleep or getting a ride. Their trucks, with windshields bearing a white violation notice bordered in red, could not be moved until they were fixed.

This is the fifth year that State Police and local law enforcement agencies have used the home of the Washington Redskins to conduct their dragnet. Coming just weeks before the start of the summer travel season, the exercise reminds drivers and their employers to abide by state regulations, said Dofflemyer, head of the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division.

"When companies and drivers see all these agencies working together and see that we're pulling over hundreds of trucks versus roadside stops of two and three trucks, it sends a message," Dofflemyer said. "They know they're on our radar and the next step might be a complete audit of their fleet."

Dofflemyer said he would like to set up more dragnets around the state this year, including one in the Baltimore area if he can find an inspection site with easy highway access.

Louis Campion, president of the Maryland Motor Truck Association, said his membership supported the checkpoints.

"Everyone has to share the road and we all want to do it safely," he said.

Nationally, the fatal accident rate for heavy trucks is at its lowest since 1975, when the U.S. Department of Transportation began keeping statistics. In Maryland, fatal accidents are down too, from 61 deaths in 2006 to 43 in 2010, the most recent year for which statistics were available from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The dangers posed by defective trucks and tired drivers made headlines late last year, when the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ordered Gunther Transport LLC, a Hanover-based company with a long history of violations, out of service. Just weeks later, safety officials issued another out-of-service order when Gunther went back into business as Clock Transport LLC.

The General Assembly responded last session, overwhelmingly approving a bill giving State Police the authority to take trucks off the road that are an imminent hazard. Lawmakers nicknamed the measure, which takes effect Oct. 1, the "Gunther bill."

"I'm convinced we never would have gotten it passed without the Gunther incident," Dofflemyer said.

But that law alone doesn't make enforcement any easier for the State Police, which has 90 troopers and civilian inspectors to check nearly 100,000 trucks annually.

By 8:30 a.m. Tuesday, a line of trucks of all vintages and sizes stretched from the highway to the vast parking lot, where they were directed to small squads of troopers or local officers. By entering each vehicle's federal identification number into a U.S. Department of Transportation database, inspectors knew if it had a history of violations that would merit a higher level of scrutiny.

Many drivers sat stoically behind the wheel as inspectors poked their heads under the hood and disappeared beneath the body to check brakes and air hoses. But a handful of drivers were animated, engaging the officers in a show-and-tell of what was wrong with their trucks.

"A lot of times, their hands are tied. The company won't fix what's wrong," said Jason Dean, a Calvert County sheriff's deputy, as he inspected a dump truck that appeared to be held together with mud and spray paint. "We say, 'What's up with this truck?' and they're very honest. They point things out."

Large trucking firms usually have a maintenance budget to stay ahead of problems, State Police 1st Sgt. Rob Mondor said.

"The smaller companies and the owner-operators are forced to make choices. The bigger the problem gets, the more expensive it gets," he said. "And with the price of fuel, you have guys making a hard decision: Do I replace the tires or fill the tank?"

Most inspections took about 40 minutes. Eleven vehicles were ticketed for being overweight. One hazardous materials carrier was placed in the impound lot. A driver was arrested on an outstanding warrant.

Even those who ended up on the wrong side of the law seemed to take it in stride.

Eric Roberts, a driver for Halethorpe-based Temp-Distribution of Maryland Inc., waited patiently for troopers to deliver the bad news: While his truck was in fine shape, his trailer's defective brake lights and brake linings meant it would have to be left behind.

"They're just doing what they have to," Roberts said as he put his license back in his wallet and hoisted himself into the cab. "It keeps us on our toes and keeps us safe, too."