October 15, 2014 3:50 PM, EDT

Analysis: A Rookie Leader’s Perspective on Commercial-Vehicle Enforcement

By Capt. Mike Saunders

Commercial Vehicle Division

Washington State Patrol

This story appears in the Oct. 13 print edition of Transport Topics.

Yep, I’m that guy. That’s right, I can admit it to all you hardcore commercial-vehicle enforcement folks who have dedicated your lives to addressing

commercial-motor-vehicle safety. I’m the guy who spent 27 years in field operations hoping someone else would take care of the big rigs. Out of service — of course, I knew the term. That’s when I would advise my communications center I’ve ended my shift. The Code of Federal Regulations? Can we enforce those? Also, can somebody please explain what a motorcoach is? Oh, you mean those tour buses running up and down our highways? Got it.

Well, the jig is up. I now find myself with the privilege of leading the Commercial Vehicle Division of the Washington State Patrol, and I am continually impressed by the quality of people this enforcement field attracts and the level of service they provide.

In 31 total years in law enforcement, I never have encountered a more dedicated workforce. These men and women in CMV enforcement make daily contact with CMVs — crawling under trucks, completing inspections on narrow roads and stopping large rigs which present so many unknowns, often with limited ability to identify the dangers which may exist within the cab. But they love it. When called away to other duties, they often find their way back to work in this field to which they are so loyal. There is a level of commitment among these officers I am just beginning to understand.

Why do we do that? As dedicated as they are, I know I’m making my staff crazy with this query I’m constantly asking. It is getting better, but only because they have learned to anticipate the question. As the new guy attempting to better understand my most recent assignment, I am continually making inquiries in search of process improvements. The officers providing the standard “because-that’s-the-way-we’ve-always-done-it” answer should probably rethink their response. Hopefully, this will result in our staff working smarter, maximizing our resources and improving efficiency. In today’s economy, it is the only way we will reach our goals.

One common theme I find — not just among law enforcement, but in every entity related to the commercial-vehicle industry — is the desire to protect and save lives on our roadways. The partnerships among industry and enforcement are impressive. Although there may be differences in the approach, we can all agree on the desired outcome.

I recall the reaction from a CMV driver involved in a collision where the driver of a passenger vehicle was fatally injured. The CMV driver was not at fault. He was operating good equipment, with a legal load, doing everything right when the other vehicle entered his lane. I sensed the feeling of helplessness he must have experienced at the moment he realized all his efforts to avoid the other vehicle could not prevent the collision. He was so distraught over the loss of life that he told me he would never get behind the wheel of a truck again. We can all relate to his response and I have found a

genuine concern for safety everywhere I look in the commercial-vehicle world.

A message we must relentlessly deliver to motorists in passenger vehicles is how difficult it is for even the best CMV driver to maneuver 80,000-plus pounds when forced to react in an emergency situation. Nationally we find such high percentages of the collisions investigated were caused by a passenger vehicle in which the driver may have failed to acknowledge this fact. Damages resulting from a CMV collision are amplified by the shear mass and weight of the vehicle. The results can be devastating.

So how can those of us involved in commercial-vehicle enforcement effectively communicate this message with such limited resources? I am convinced we are underutilizing those field officers who find themselves in the same situation I described at the beginning of this article.

Settle down. I am not asking every officer to be certified by the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance. No, you don’t need to force another program down the throats of a workforce that is already overcommitted.

But we can encourage our folks in the field to take advantage of a “training moment” when contacting a passenger vehicle for violations committed around a CMV, violations such as cutting in front of a CMV at the congested exit ramp or failing to signal lane changes so others can anticipate your next move.

We can point out how difficult it is for the CMV driver to react to a vehicle crossing the centerline as its inattentive driver sends his text message. “Sir, do you realize how difficult it is for the CMV driver to see you when you blow by him at 20 mph over the posted speed limit?”

By asking our field operations troopers and officers to recognize these opportunities and help us deliver these types of messages, I believe we become more effective in accomplishing our goal to improve safety on our roadways.