Police departments seek commercial vehicle certification

November 15, 2014
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Jim McNutt / Observer-Reporter
Canonsburg police Officer Scott Bashioum inspects a truck off Main Street in Houston recently. Bashioum is one of few officers in the area who has Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program certification. Order a Print
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Photo courtesy of Rice Energy
Rice Energy, a local natural gas drilling company, uses its own traffic-enforcement vehicles to ensure drivers are abiding by speed limits on municipal and access roads.

If a tractor-trailer in Fredericktown appears to be operating without proper brakes or carrying a load that is too heavy, the local police department must ask a certified inspector in Washington to drive there, which could take more than 35 minutes.

While a handful of officers in the immediate Washington area are certified to inspect trucks, hardly any of the smaller, rural municipal departments have the money or resources to send an officer to Harrisburg for two weeks to get trained in the federal Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program.

Local officers can pull over trucks that have glaring issues, but only MCSAP-certified officers can conduct inspections anywhere in Pennsylvania. Fines can be issued for up to $1,000 per truck, depending on the seriousness of the violations, and the money is split between the local and state governments.

Inspections involve extensive weight and equipment checks, and even safety checks to make sure drivers got enough rest. But the program is selective, it’s offered infrequently and it costs departments both time and money to get people certified and have them attend annual training sessions.

“I wish we could, but it’s just so hard to get the training, and it’s so expensive,” said Mark Pompe, police chief of East Bethlehem Township. “We definitely need it in the town with these gas wells.”

While Pompe acknowledged traffic drastically increased due to the Marcellus Shale industry – especially in Fredericktown, where fleets of water tanker trucks travel along Route 88 – he said the vehicles are generally in compliance. But he still begins conducting speed checks as early as 2 a.m. because “impatient” drivers of personal vehicles try to illegally pass the trucks.

With the exception of a few recent accidents involving water tanker trucks, the seven local police officers interviewed for this story said shale industry drivers are largely abiding by the law.

“Those industries know that they’re high-profile, and they’re very well-maintained trucks,” said Scott Bashioum, a MCSAP-certified officer in Canonsburg. “I have not found an out-of-service criteria violation yet on a Marcellus Shale field truck.”

Others remain skeptical. State Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Jefferson, and outgoing state Sen. Tim Solobay, D-Canonsburg, proposed a truck safety summit in response to recent accidents.

Most recently, a water tanker truck overturned on the Monongahela Bridge on Nov. 2, and a small diesel spill had to be contained. On Sept. 28, the driver of a tanker truck collapsed a portion of the historic Pollocks Mill Bridge in Greene County because the vehicle was four times the allowable weight restriction for the bridge. And on Sept. 7, a tanker truck carrying frack water was struck by a train on Low Hill Road in Centerville Borough, but the driver managed to get out safely before the vehicle was struck.

The two officials held a meeting Monday with state police, state Department of Transportation officials and the turnpike commission. They discussed issues such as speeding and overweight trucks, inexperienced drivers, flaggers illegally stopping traffic and trucks operating on unbonded roads.

“Community safety must be a top priority when we are dealing with the shale drilling industry,” Solobay said. “Too often, subcontractors who transport materials between sites and destination points have failed to use proper safety procedures.”

Lt. Rob Lemons, the MCSAP-certified officer for Washington city police, is in the process of starting a truck enforcement task force using some funds from a $50,000 Local Share Account grant. The idea is for each participating municipality to take turns hosting truck enforcement details, and all certified officers would help out instead of one officer doing the bulk of the work.

“It’s a lot for one guy to do, and it’s much better if you have a couple guys together, so you’re not missing anything,” Lemons said. “You make sure all the bases are covered.”

Industry self-policing

Some Marcellus Shale companies are driving change by taking matters into their own hands. Rice Energy, based in Canonsburg, has its own traffic-enforcement vehicles and hires off-duty and retired police officers to monitor traffic on municipal and site access roads. The company is not permitted to track speeding on state roads.

If a driver is caught speeding or driving on a road where industry trucks are prohibited, Rice Energy issues a citation to that person. For the first instance, a written warning is sent to the owner of the company the driver works for. If it happens again, that particular driver is banned from Rice Energy’s grounds for life.

“It’s pretty strict,” said Michael Lauderbaugh, vice president of environmental health and safety. “We’ve been doing this for about a year-and-a-half now, and we’ve only had two people get banned.”

Lauderbaugh said the company started monitoring truck traffic in response to calls from concerned citizens and public officials regarding speeding and the volume of truck traffic on roads that were not bonded.

They currently have eight patrol vehicles and 10 officers on staff. They operate out of Washington and Greene counties, and parts of Ohio. Rice hopes to add to its enforcement staff as the company grows.

“It’s just one of the things we’re trying to do to be good neighbors and make sure that our contractors are adhering to this policy,” Lauderbaugh said.

Keeping violations in check

Lt. Douglas Bartoe, a state police trooper in Washington who oversees the MCSAP program locally, said residents in rural areas went from “never seeing a truck on some of these roads to seeing convoys of them” in the last five to 10 years.

“When people complain about the trucks, I think that’s the biggest complaint – the amount of truck traffic,” Bartoe said.

The most drastic increases in truck traffic have been in Claysville, Mt. Pleasant Township and Fredericktown, according to Bartoe. State police have four MCSAP-certified troopers who split their time between Allegheny and Washington counties.

In Canonsburg, truck traffic increases when drivers are tipped off about commercial vehicle inspections being conducted on the highway, Bashioum said.

Since the beginning of the year, Bashioum conducted more than 50 inspections, and roughly half resulted in a violation. About 20 percent had a major violation and had to be taken out of service immediately.

Donald Cooper, the MCSAP-certified officer in Chartiers, said brake issues are most common among commercial truck violations. But drivers can also be fined for not getting enough rest or for driving longer than they are permitted.

Cooper said the latest MCSAP training session he attended emphasized the importance of checking drivers’ log books to see how much rest they have gotten before getting behind the wheel.

“From what the (federal agencies) say, the trend for the United States is they’re seeing more crashes that are involving fatigued drivers,” Cooper said, “and they really want us to crack down on getting these tired, fatigued drivers off the road.”

According to PennDOT, there were 159 commercial vehicle crashes in the state last year in which fatigue or falling asleep was a factor. That number is lower than the 174 and 186 fatigue-related crashes reported in 2011 and 2012, respectively.

While fines issued by MCSAP-certified officers bring some revenue back to the municipality, officers stressed that the bigger issue is safety.

“The majority of truckers that are on the road are driving legally and (driving) safe vehicles, but there’s always that small percentage,” said Canonsburg police Chief R.T. Bell. “We’re not out there to persecute. It’s not a money-maker for us. We’re doing it to make the roads safer.”

Emily Petsko joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in June 2013. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor's degree in journalism and global cultural studies.

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