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The ‘ingenious strategy’ behind most truckers’ least favorite week of the year: International Roadcheck

We don't like to see that. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

International Roadcheck Week is hardly the sexiest topic in trucking, but it is a darn-tootin’ important one. Inspectors in the U.S. and Canada halt tens of thousands of trucks for vehicle inspections for a few days every summer or early fall. They remove thousands of trucks and drivers from the road; in 2021, 16.5% of inspected vehicles were put out of service along with 5.3% of drivers.

It’s uncommon for truck drivers to actually get their vehicles inspected at random during most of the year. To avoid International Roadcheck Week, many truckers simply don’t drive during that period of time — which, presumably, means more unsafe vehicles and drivers on the road outside of the inspection blitz. It’s a question that ate at Andrew Balthrop, a research associate at the University of Arkansas Sam M. Walton College of Business. 

Around 5% fewer one-person trucking companies are active during International Roadcheck Week. But Balthrop and his fellow researcher, Alex Scott of the University of Tennessee, found a major upside to the inspection blitz — even with all the folks who avoid it. According to their working paper published in March 2021, vehicles are safer a month before and after the inspection period. There’s a 1.8% reduction of vehicle violations, according to Balthrop and Scott’s analysis. Surprise inspection blitzes don’t result in the same uptick of compliance. 

I caught up with Balthrop about his research last week at FreightWaves’ Future of Supply Chain conference, and we chatted again on the phone this week about his findings on International Roadcheck Week.

Enjoy a bonus MODES and a lightly edited transcription of our phone interview: 

FREIGHTWAVES: For our readers who are not aware of what Roadcheck Week actually is, can you explain a little bit about what it and why it is important to drivers and companies?

BALTHROP: “The International Roadcheck is part of an alliance between the inspectors in Canada and the ones in Mexico and the U.S. to have a unified framework for making sure trucks are safe to operate. That should make it easier to go across borders when you have this kind of unified structure.

“In the U.S., one of these CVSA inspection blitzes is the International Roadcheck that happens for three days in the summer. Usually it’s a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. And usually it’s the first week in June.

“And in it, they focus on Level One inspections, the North American Standard Inspection where they inspect the driver records, the hours of service, the licensure and I believe medical records as well. Then they inspect the truck. It’s an in-depth inspection where the inspector will actually crawl under the truck to look at various things. And these inspections, from the data that I’ve seen, take about a half an hour on average.

“During the Roadcheck Week, they’ll do about 60,000 inspections, so 20,000 a day. They’re going to pull over a lot of trucks, and this can cause a little bit of congestion at the weigh stations and the roadside inspections localities as the inspectors are doing these inspections.”

Roadcheck Week doesn’t catch all truck drivers, but it has a long-lasting benefit to safety

FREIGHTWAVES: So, can most drivers kind of expect to be pulled over? How likely is that?

BALTHROP: “There’s 1 million or 3 million trucks on the road, somewhere around there on any given day. With 20,000 inspections, most drivers still will not get inspected, but there’s going to be a higher proportion of drivers inspected. 

“You’re more likely to get inspected on these days. If you don’t have a recent inspection on your record, or if you have a bad recent inspection on your record, you’re more likely to be pulled over on these days.”

FREIGHTWAVES: Your research focused on that it’s just unusual that this inspection is announced, that it’s planned. We were talking before about how normally, if you’re trying to assure quality or compliance, you would not announce an inspection in advance. It would be more of a surprise-type situation. 

Can you walk us through why that’s so unusual, or what’s the rationale that you see behind announcing it in advance?

BALTHROP: “It is unusual, and on the surface, it doesn’t make much sense, but it turns out to be kind of an ingenious strategy. So I’ll walk through it here. 

“Over the course of a year, there’ll be 2 million inspections of 3 or 4 million trucks out there. The average rate of inspections is pretty low. It’s not uncommon for truckers to go years without having an inspection. With this low inspection intensity, the FMCSA has sort of a problem of, how does it get anybody to abide by the regulations?

“I’m a jaded economist, and I don’t worry or consider too much ethics and morality and all that kind of stuff. It comes down to incentives for drivers to follow these inspections. The incentives do guide behavior. So, how could the FMCSA incentivize drivers to follow these regulations more closely and adhere to the standards?

“They do this by announcing the blitz. This does two things. On one side, it allows everybody to prepare in advance. There’s a bunch of anecdotal evidence out there that people do prepare for these blitzes in advance. They will have their trucks inspected beforehand for any problems. They’ll time maintenance and upkeep in advance to make sure that their vehicles are in order. “They’ll be a little bit more cognizant of the driver-side regulations. One thing we notice in our study is that hours-of-service violations really drop during these extensions, because people see them coming. They don’t fudge the books in any way.”

Owner-operators can evade Roadcheck Week. Big carriers, not so much.

BALTHROP: “The issue with the announcement, on the flip side, is that it allows people to just dodge the inspection entirely. For a long time, people have talked about how owner-operators and smaller carriers time their vacations for this particular time. They could do this for a couple reasons. To avoid the hassle is a nice way to put it, but it also allows you to be noncompliant to avoid the high-intensity inspections.

“You have this balance here that on one side you get the behavior you want with people complying with regulations. That’s the behavior the FMCSA wants. But on the flip side, you get a bunch of people that are kind of outright dodging inspections.

“When you compare these two things on balance, the policy is actually pretty effective because you get a lot of people focused on maintaining their trucks and obeying the rules during that particular week. Especially with the vehicle maintenance stuff, that lasts a long time. 

“In our research, we saw that vehicle violations, a month before and up to a month afterwards, is when you still notice your vehicle violations. That trucks are kind of better maintained around these blitzes.

“The ingenious aspect of it is that the FMCSA, by concentrating their inspection resources all at one time and announcing it, they’re making it clear that they’re serious about enforcing these regulations and everybody prepares for it. For the number of inspections that are happening, you get fewer tickets than you would have otherwise expected.

“The FMCSA, they’re putting people through a little bit of a hassle, but they’re not having to write a bunch of tickets to get people to comply. They’re not really punishing a whole bunch of people because, by making this apparent that this is going to happen, people comply and the FMCSA gets what they want essentially without having to come down on carriers too hard.”

A convenient time for a vacation, indeed

FREIGHTWAVES: OK, interesting. And how does this pattern of shutting down, how does that compare for an owner-operator versus a driver for a big fleet?

BALTHROP: “If you’re a motor carrier with thousands of power units, you can’t just pack up and not do business on a particular day. They just don’t have that option. So they get inspected at a higher intensity, and you see the larger carriers kind of more focused on making sure that they’re prepared for these inspections. With so many inspections, the larger carriers are going to be inspected at higher rates. You can really damage your reputation if your equipment isn’t in order on this particular day. 

“Versus the smaller carriers, especially if you’re talking about a single-vehicle fleet, an owner-operator type, it is not that difficult to just not work for those three days. And so you see a lot about that. 

“In terms of what the roadway composition looks like, if we look at inspection data and relative to a typical day with the usual inspections, on these Roadcheck days, you have about 5% fewer owner-operators on the road than you otherwise would expect.”

FREIGHTWAVES: Wow. And when you say owner-operators, you also mean just like fleets with just —

BALTHROP: “One-vehicle fleets.”

FREIGHTWAVES: OK, that’s interesting.

BALTHROP: “You know, you see a little bit of effect with the smaller fleets, below six vehicles, but it basically disappears by the time you get to a hundred vehicles.

“This effect is being driven by smaller carriers staying off the road in terms of avoidance. You see this goes also how you would expect; it’s also older vehicles that stay off the road. This is correlated with carrier size. The larger carriers use newer vehicles and owner-operators tend to use some of the older vehicles. But it’s particularly the older vehicles that are off the road.

“This makes intuitive sense. Older vehicles are more costly to keep compliant. Maintenance is more costly, and they’ve been around longer so there’s time for more stuff to have broken essentially.

How a truck driver gets stopped for inspection

FREIGHTWAVES: Can you explain a little bit more, the idea of having this inspection history and why it would benefit a larger or small carrier?

BALTHROP: “Getting flagged for inspection is sort of random, but not totally. If somebody notices something obviously wrong with your truck, that’s ground for a more in-depth inspection. Or if you get pulled over for some other reason, this can be grounds for inspection of some type. 

“But there’s also the inspection selection service. The computer program that is random, that it randomly flags people in for inspection, but it’s based on your inspection history.

“So if your firm hasn’t been inspected recently, or if your carrier doesn’t have a very dense inspection history, you’ll be more likely to trigger that system to pull you in and have you inspected. If you have a dense inspection history, you’re less likely to get inspected.”

FREIGHTWAVES: So how do you get pulled over for inspection? As a person who only drives a passenger car, my main interaction with being pulled over is, I’m driving down the freeway or wherever, and I get stopped by the police. How does it work for a truck driver? How does getting pulled over or inspected work in that way?

BALTHROP: “The law is that you cannot pass a weigh station without pulling in and getting weighed. At that point they may flag you to be inspected. Now, in the past decade or two, there’s been a bunch of electronic devices that are installed in cabs. You may have heard of PrePass or Drivewise. This allows you to pass weigh stations. 

“I don’t have data on how many trucks have the in-cab devices. But from a trucking perspective, they’re so convenient that you don’t have to stop every time you cross a state line. I think the vast, overwhelming majority of trucks have some sort of one of these electronic devices. The DOT inspectors at these roadside inspection points have a dial they can twist essentially about how many people they want to inspect. 

“So during the roadcheck inspection week, they’ll crank that dial all the way up and pull everybody over. And if they get too backed up, they might crank it back down a little bit and so on.”

FREIGHTWAVES: OK, interesting. It reminds me of a highly sophisticated E‑ZPass.

A $10 million-plus expense to trucking companies every year … but it’s worth it if just one fatal crash is avoided

FREIGHTWAVES: Zooming out, when we hear about large truck crashes, something like a vehicle maintenance issue is not really the most sexy explanation. But just looking at the FMCSA data, in 29% of all truck crashes, a major factor is brake problems. So it seems like a lot of the truck crashes on the road are caused by vehicle maintenance, versus something like the driver using illegal drugs or some other sort of more dramatic explanation. Can you speak a little bit to why this sort of vehicle maintenance is important for safety in preventing large crashes?

BALTHROP: “We did a little bit of a back-of-the-envelope cost benefit analysis of this. Let me try and make sure I remember it clearly, but we have it in the paper that the cost of this on one side is that you have the compliance costs the firms are undertaking, and then you have to add to that the delay costs from doing this, and then the cost of the inspection itself, having to pay federal inspectors to do this.

“On the benefit side, it reduces crashes. So when we add up, just looking at the cost of what an inspection is, we don’t have a good idea of how to measure the compliance cost. It’d be fun to measure the delay cost, but I don’t have good enough price data on that to get at that cost. 

“But if you look at what the cost of an inspection is, it is something like $100 or $120 is what you would pay to have one of these inspections done privately. A lot of people do this in the run-up to inspections, and have it done privately so that you can fix whatever the problems are and be sure that you would pass the FMCSA inspection.

“With that $120 figure, if you aggregate that up to 60,000 inspections or whatever, and you take that in comparison, I’m going to give you a bad figure here, it’s on the order of $10 million. That is about the value of a statistical human life. Looking at this economically, it’s worthwhile if it saves one human life. If you identify just one faulty brake system that would’ve resulted in an accident, you’re getting some value out of the program. 

“When you add those other costs in there, we’re going to need to save a couple of lives, but in terms of cost benefit analysis with this kind of stuff, we’re usually looking at orders of magnitude differences in cost and benefits to say something for sure. 

“If you can save just a couple lives, this program will pay for itself.”

Time to start inspecting in the winter

FREIGHTWAVES: Then one last question: Is there any rationale for this program happening in the summer? 

BALTHROP: “I think part of it is that for the inspectors this gets much harder and much more miserable to do in winter conditions.”

FREIGHTWAVES: That makes sense.

BALTHROP: “Inspectors are less productive. One of the things that we talk about in the paper, that they have in addition to the International Roadcheck, is that they have Brake Week where they focus a little bit more on brake inspections. You have Operation Safe Driver a little bit later on in the summer, usually in September, where it’s a little bit more focused on passenger vehicles and how they drive around these trucks.

“But there’s not one in the winter time. There’s an unannounced brake check that usually happens in May, a surprise inspection that’s just one day. But you’re right in pointing out that it might be worthwhile having one of these in the wintertime. You have this periodic high-intensity inspection that kind of incentivizes everybody to be compliant through the summer. 

“But there’s nothing in the winter, so that’s an area. But if I was managing the FMCSA, that would be one of the first questions I ask, ‘Why don’t we have one of these in the wintertime?’”

FREIGHTWAVES: That makes sense. Maybe they can do it in the South or something. Maybe a Miami January inspection … 

That’s it for this special bonus MODES. Subscribe here if you’re not already receiving MODES in your inbox every Thursday. Email the reporter at [email protected] with your own tales on International Roadcheck Week or any other trucking topics. 

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The second annual F3: Future of Freight Festival will be held in Chattanooga, “The Scenic City,” this November. F3 combines innovation and entertainment — featuring live demos, industry experts discussing freight market trends for 2024, afternoon networking events, and Grammy Award-winning musicians performing in the evenings amidst the cool Appalachian fall weather.

Rachel Premack

Rachel Premack is the editorial director at FreightWaves. She writes the newsletter MODES. Her reporting on the logistics industry has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Vox, and additional digital and print media. She's also spoken about her work on ABC News, NBC News, NPR, and other major outlets. If you’d like to get in touch with Rachel, please email her at [email protected] or [email protected].