Jim Ullmer parks his maroon F-250 near a scrap yard. A few minutes later, a blue International hauling a roll-off container catches his eye.
Like many encounters, this one starts because the driver isn’t wearing a seat belt. That’s an automatic violation for commercial truck drivers. It’s an open invitation for an inspector like Ullmer to pull them over.
For many drivers, after a chat with Ullmer and a quick exchange of paperwork, they could be on their way. But this time, Ullmer hits the jackpot. The more he looks around, the more he finds.
The truck’s front license plate and rear plate aren’t the same. The rear plate, it turns out, is registered to a different vehicle. The rear plate is also bent – enough to obscure the fact that the license tab expired seven months ago. The annual state inspection that’s required expired five months ago. The vehicle lacks a USDOT number, another violation. To Ullmer, it also appears that the driver is hauling a heavier load than he’s licensed to haul.
A repeat offender
“If he had just one of those violations, I could understand it,” Ullmer says. “But when you start adding everything up, it kind of leads you to believe that this guy knows … what he’s doing. He just wants to try to get away with as much as he can.”
When Ullmer runs the driver’s name and license on his state laptop, several screens of encounters show up, dating back more than 15 years. “This gentleman,” Ullmer says, “it’s not his first time at the rodeo.”
Ullmer pulls six portable scales from the back of his pickup, slides them under the International, and weighs the load. Sure enough, the truck is 10,800 pounds heavier than it’s licensed for. “That’s a keeper,” he says. “Clearly a guy like this, he’s just flat looking to cheat. In my book, this is your worst nightmare going down the road.” He suspects the driver also lacks insurance, but it’s one of the few things Ullmer can’t check for.
Fighting the uphill battle
Even though Ullmer has more than 23 years behind him, this has been a memorable morning. He’s been hassled for parking across the street from a truck stop. He pulled one truck out of service for a broken rear suspension. And now this. “It’s a new challenge every day,” he says.
Ullmer is one of about 85 commercial vehicle inspectors in the state patrol. The inspectors, all members of Local 3142, team up with about 30 troopers and an assortment of MnDOT, sheriff’s deputies and local law enforcement officials to try to keep unsafe trucks and drivers off the roads. The force focuses exclusively on vehicles over 10,000 pounds gross weight engaged in commerce. They enforce both state and federal regulations.
Inspectors take an eight-week state training course, must pass a two-week federal standards course, then spend three months with a field training officer. Some work at weigh stations; most are on mobile patrol. “Certainly, there’s a limited number of us out here,” Ullmer says. “The chances of getting caught for inspection, they’re not real good.”
Experience gives inspectors almost a sixth sense “that maybe that truck shouldn’t be on the road,” Ullmer says. He looks for trucks that seem overweight, have bad tires, or just seem not to be kept up. “The general overall condition of equipment would tend to indicate to me that maybe they don’t care that much about things…. Does the truck look like it’s well maintained? Does it look like it’s seen its better days? Does the driver look like he’s taking care of not only his truck, but himself?”
When he does pull someone over, Ullmer says, he’s usually not making a friend.
“When we give anybody a citation, or stop them for an inspection, we’re invading their time. Time, to truck drivers, is money. So they’re not necessarily going to be terribly jolly about that.
“We always try to treat them with respect, treat them in a professional manner. If they don’t react in the same manner, then you have to learn – mostly from experience – to diffuse the situation. That’s one of the biggest things we do. It’s not personal; it’s me doing my job while they’re doing their job.
Any job satisfaction, he says, has to come from within. “Nobody’s going to come up and tell you, ‘Way to go’.”
“Initially, you do a quick look, see if there’s anything that jumps out at you. If there is, that leads to a little further evaluation. If they look like they’re worthy of an inspection, that’s what I do. If not, it’s a five-minute stop.”
Inspectors routinely check the driver’s license status, make sure drivers are licensed for what they’re hauling, and that drivers are carrying the proper medical cards. Inspectors check the log book, hours of service and the truck’s rated weight. After that, they inspect the vehicle itself.
They check the loads – whether they’re legal, secure or overweight. They check the lights, tires, brakes and suspension – crawling underneath if necessary. “Our roads are taking a beating,” Ullmer says. “It’s heavy loads again and again and again. Not necessarily illegal loads, but every day, they just keep pounding these roads.“
Money vs. safety
“The driver fatigue issue is huge,” Ullmer says. “You’re paid by the mile, so you’re going to push harder. They can drive 11 hours, then they must have 10 hours off.
“The majority of the people we work with are people just doing the best they can to make a living,” he says, “We know that everybody out here is working for a paycheck. And they’re working longer, they’re working harder.
“They’re like any other part of our economy right now. If the wheels aren’t turning, they’re not making any money. Obviously, if they turn more miles, they make more money. This is what they do for a living. And it’s a hard life. I don’t doubt that for a second. I understand how tough it is. And I’ll be honest with you: Nobody has the answer.”
But Ullmer understands that pulling a dangerous rig or exhausted driver off the road could prevent a disaster. “It’s unfortunate, but people die everyday as a result of their actions or their lack of actions sometimes. You get hit by an 80,000-pound truck and you’re a 3,500-pound automobile, the truck wins,” Ullmer says. He sees that result firsthand all the time; the commercial vehicle inspectors also investigate anytime a truck is involved in a crash.
Still, Ullmer admires the skill of most of the drivers he sees. “These guys are really good at what they do. The talent these guys have is phenomenal.”
Adapted from the September/October 2009 issue of Council 5's Stepping Up magazine