State police truck weight enforcement recovers from closures; numbers still down post-pandemic

By: - October 18, 2023 6:30 am
enforcement

Truckers take a break at the Loves Truck stop on November 5, 2021 in Springville, Utah. (George Frey/Getty Images)

Eight weigh stations on the outskirts of Indiana’s interstate system weigh increasing numbers of commercial vehicles — millions, annually — as they drive into the state. Vehicles found overweight get warnings, citations and more, but such enforcement actions remain below pre-pandemic levels.

It’s part of states’ deal with the federal government: weight enforcement, in exchange for road funding. That’s because higher weights per vehicle axle cause exponentially greater road damage, according to industry database Pavement Interactive.

“The more damage there is to the roads, the more often roads have to be replaced — and as we all know, construction season is an almost year-round event now,” said Major Jon Smithers, commander of the Indiana State Police’s (ISP) Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division.

As Indiana lawmakers look to redesign how the state pays for its roads, industry drivers say they pay their fair share for the damage vehicles cause — but are literally on the hook for enforcement actions on semi-trailers they don’t pack.

“(Drivers) just hook to it and they leave with it,” Indiana Motor Truck Association President Gary Langston said.

Packing light

Trucks carry 80% of all freight tonnages within and through Indiana, according to the state’s transportation department.

But they must abide by strict weight restrictions: in total, they must weigh less than 80,000 pounds, must have less than 34,000 pounds on a set of tandem axles, and so on — in line with federal requirements. ISP also enforces federal per-tire weight regulations.

Commercial vehicles driving inbound roll over “weigh in motion” scales placed along some of Indiana’s busiest stretches of highway as ISP employees look for potential violations. Officers on the road carry four portable scales in their vehicles to catch trucks trying to go around the stations.

“That’s how we decide which trucks we’re going to pull in to the weigh station for the static scale,” Smithers said. “… It will give us an indication: ‘Hey, this (weight) is close enough. You ought to take a look closer look at it.’”

Signs point vehicles under the maximum toward bypass lanes. But potential violators go to the static scales, where vehicles get their official weights, according to Smithers.

Each scale has three platforms so station attendants can measure weight in total and by axle group.

Officers have discretion in taking action when vehicles are overweight. They may ask drivers to “correct” the load, and can offer warnings, citations and even impoundment — although state law protects vehicles that are overweight by less than 1,000 pounds.

“Most of the modern tractors, trucks and trailers, you can move the axles backwards and forwards. … If you adjust those, it will shift the way the weight’s carried on the trailer,” Smithers said.

“But if it’s something that’s significantly over and they have no way to fix it, then we could theoretically impound it and force them to fix it in a safe location,” he added.

Asked what he considered merits an impound, Smithers said, “You know, you get 5,000, 6000 pounds over, you get in the area that requires a special permit to operate it that way.”

Overweight or oversized vehicles can obtain paid permits from the Indiana Department of Transportation (INDOT). Lawmakers first introduced industry-specific weight exceptions about a decade ago, but swapped the list of commodities for a general-use permit in a 2021 law.

Permitted overweight or oversized vehicles are given specific routes along infrastructure that can handle them.

Virus, closures cut enforcement actions

The weigh-in-motion scales weighed more than 11.3 million commercial vehicles from 2018 through 2022, according to ISP — averaging 2.3 million screenings a year.

That’s despite a worldwide virus: the stations were closed from March 2020 to September that year, and operated “under restrictions and reduced hours” until April 2021, according to Smithers.

Officers diverted small percentages to the static scales over the five-year period, ranging from a pandemic-induced 47,000 (2% of screenings) to a pre-pandemic 277,000 (12% of screenings). They weighed more than 222,000 in 2022, still under 2018 totals and percentages.

Warnings peaked in 2019 at 3,800 and hit a low in 2020 at 1,500, though they’ve partially recovered: ISP issued 2,600 warnings in 2022.

Similarly, officers issued a recent high of 3,000 citations in 2018, and just 1,500 in 2020. In 2022, they logged 2,600.

ISP doesn’t track impoundments, but Smithers said that it was exceedingly rare: he recalled just two to three over his decade with the Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division.

ISP has additionally maintained enforcement throughout several weigh station closures: five of the eight were closed for months each in the last five years.

One, on Interstate-74 in Dearborn County, was closed for more than a year after a truck driver suffering a fatal heart attack drove through and destroyed the station, according to Smithers. Others required repairs and remodeling, or were inaccessible during road construction.

Smithers said most violators don’t intend to “skirt the system.”

“I would say, (a) majority of the time, it’s just lack of knowledge. They’re not sure how to properly load a vehicle,” he said. “Or, you may get the rare occasion where they may try to push the limits — just because if they can get more on one truck, they then obviously save some money from having to pay another driver and have another truck burning fuel.”

Langston said enforcement creates “significant challenges” for drivers.

“Anyone who operates in that space is familiar with those regulations and laws,” he said. “The problem is that that shippers are the ones who load the vehicles. In most cases, the driver of the vehicle has nothing to do with the loading of the vehicle.”

Overweight citations once counted against drivers’ commercial drivers licenses. Langston’s organization successfully lobbied lawmakers to drop the four-point assessment.

But as lawmakers have loosened the rules for overweight loads, weight has become a “bigger issue,” Langston said.

“It requires collaboration between the shippers and the carriers,” he added. “There’s always a conversation there. It’s not always as amicable as we would like for it to be.”

Paying up

State-owned roads are designed to last 50 years — but require maintenance or eventual reconstruction.

Indiana spends billions of dollars on its roads, and with gas tax revenue expected to drop, state leaders are convening to rethink road funding sources.

But who’ll pay for it?

State panel convenes to take on expected plunge in road revenue

The Joint Transportation Research Program — a collaboration between INDOT and Purdue University — is set to update a highway cost allocation study last completed in 2016. The new edition is expected in summer of 2024, Purdue researchers told lawmakers last month.

“I can’t really answer if we pay enough,” Langston said. “I believe we pay our fair share.”

The trucking industry pays the state of Indiana more than $1 billion annually in registration fees, taxes and more, according to Langston — which he noted adds up to a significant portion of INDOT’s budget.

“It’s logical that vehicles that are heavier maybe use up the road more quickly than a passenger vehicle, but there are a lot more passenger vehicles and trucks, and passenger vehicles drive a lot more miles than trucks,” he added.

Lawmakers have toyed with the idea of collecting taxes using vehicle miles traveled, rather than at the pump, but have been unwilling to settle on the concept. Tolling got little traction at an earlier version of a key road funding-focused task force.

But lawmakers have little to fear from truckers when it comes to the electric transition, said Langston, who urged them to avoid a “cookie-cutter solution.” Hydrogen holds more promise, but it’s likely far off.

“As far as Class 8 tractor trailers — which are the big trucks that you see on the interstate — they’re going to be using internal combustion engines and diesel fuel for a long time,” he said. “… Our industry will continue to pay that diesel fuel tax for a long time.”

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Leslie Bonilla Muñiz
Leslie Bonilla Muñiz

Leslie covers state government for the Indiana Capital Chronicle with emphases on elections, infrastructure and transportation. She previously covered city-county government for the Indianapolis Business Journal. She has also reported on local, national and international news for the Chicago Tribune, Voice of America and more. She holds an undergraduate degree in journalism from Northwestern University.

Indiana Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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