Log truck inspections differ widely

Published 11:49 pm Sunday, February 17, 2008

VICKSBURG (AP) — Log truck drivers Larrence Ellis and Charlie Thompson have time for only a quick snack during a pit stop for fuel on a typical workday.

Those trips usually entail hauling rigs loaded with fresh logs to designated destinations — a task tied to what their paychecks look like.

“Gotta get that production,” Thompson said, gearing up to take the wheel of his 48-foot trailer to make the day’s load quota.

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Besides making sure loads are secure, a more daunting task when delivering their cargo is negotiating between other vehicles on the road.

“It’s all the time, the last-minute braking,” Ellis said, describing his daily driving experience during his five years of driving for Columbia-based Forest Products Transports. “It’s like, ‘Oh, here’s where I wanted to turn.’”

Standing in the shadows of a load of about 30 cedar logs aboard his 40-foot trailer, the Port Gibson native is quick to say how difficult it is to stop a truck loaded with 25 tons of logs traveling about 60 mph.

“It takes at least two football fields to come to a stop,” Ellis said.

A vital necessity for a major Mississippi industry to some and a driving hazard for many motorists, trucks like the ones driven by Ellis and Thompson remain a common sight on the state’s major highways.

Like most heavy road traffic, the trucks carrying cedar, oak, pine and other timber processed during harvest season, are inspected for possible safety risks such as bad brakes, low tire treads and working lights.

Those seemed to be in working order on a fully loaded log truck headed north on U.S. 61 North shortly before noon Jan. 11, as scores of law enforcement officials processed a fatal wreck scene involving big rigs.

As Vicksburg police and Warren County sheriff’s deputies sifted through what remained of a cement tanker and another truck carrying concrete beams, the log truck driver lost control and, for an instant, further catastrophe appeared imminent.

Beyond the sight of officers and rescue personnel who ran for cover, the log truck driver regained control.

An irate Sheriff Martin Pace radioed for extra traffic control farther south of the accident scene and ordered the driver stopped.

“Our concern was the inspection of the truck,” he said. The driver “did a pretty good job of avoiding an accident.”

While the Mississippi Department of Transportation Office of Law Enforcement was contacted, neither state nor local officials could do anything beyond checking for valid inspection stickers.

“They told us what we already knew,” Pace said.

County sheriff’s departments cannot inspect commercial big rigs for safe operation and use of on-board equipment. That task belongs to the Mississippi Department of Transportation’s law enforcement division and the Mississippi Highway Patrol.

State law governing the inspection of motor vehicles includes commercial trucks permitted to carry more than 10,000 pounds by its gross vehicle weight rating, or GVWR. It also contains 11 specific exemptions with various accompanying conditions, including school buses, hearses, emergency vehicles and certain farm equipment, among others.

Also listed are provisions protecting from inspectors’ eyes trucks carrying logs and gravel, indicative of the legislative influence wielded by industries supplying more than $1 billion to the state’s economy annually.

Described in the law, the exemption applies to “motor vehicles engaged in the transportation of logs and pulpwood between the point of harvest and the first point of processing the harvested product.”

Willie Huff, MDOT’s Law Enforcement Office director and a former police chief in Natchez, said trucks may be inspected at various weigh stations when empty — but not when they are loaded.

“We can weigh and check whether their loads are secure,” Huff said. “Things like glaring safety concerns like loose air lines, lights that don’t work, tires that don’t have enough tread.”

Drivers are checked for valid commercial driver’s licenses, Huff said, adding drivers of some farm trucks are exempt from needing a commercial license, usually $40 in Mississippi.

By contrast, a regular driver’s license is usually $20. Fines for violations found can run from $500 to $1,000.

Self-employed loggers are subject to having a Class A license, which enables hauling loads more than 26,000 pounds, only if the logger is traveling more than 150 miles from his house, Mississippi Highway Patrol Capt. George White said.

Annual salaries of drivers and others in the forest services and logging sectors fell off a bit from the mid-1990s to the present decade, according to recurring studies by the Department of Forestry at Mississippi State University. More than 63,000 industry employees averaged about $25,500 in 1993. Ten years later, 52,580 forest industry workers average income was $24,853.

Huff said recent efforts to convey a message of safety in the industry have centered on education classes moderated by MDOT and regional logging associations, where instructional videos and diagrams are used to promote safe operation among drivers.

Seminars were held most recently in Tupelo and Hattiesburg, Huff said, featuring programs showing companies how to self-inspect their trucks for brake problems and other potential safety hazards.

Also, state compliance manuals have been updated to reflect more aspects of trucker safety, such as properly securing loads that often trail the rear of most trucks by about 6 feet.

“Load securement is covered in our workshops and in the field,” said Jason Cutshall, manager for the Starkville regional office of Maryland-based Forestry Resources Association.

FRA participates in 10 to 12 workshops annually in Mississippi. While each session has no overriding theme or goal, the points covered derive from information from member loggers.

“We hope to do more across the state,” Cutshall said. “There’s good and bad, and the bad always captures the headlines.”

As seen with other loopholes and exemptions in state law, industry pressure on lawmakers to balance safety and economics is prevalent.

Huff said the litany of exceptions regarding log trucks makes for a “tough issue,” with plenty of efforts through the years to reduce the number of exceptions.

On the regulatory level, officials prefer to stick with what they describe as balanced approaches.

“You’ve got to look at both sides,” Huff said. “There’ll always be some who cut corners.”