About a quarter of the thousands of heavy trucks that roll through Northwest Indiana every day are operating with serious safety defects or physically compromised drivers, state police inspectors say.
A Times probe of six years of heavy truck inspections in the region supports that conclusion.
State police and federal inspectors checked 34,856 heavy trucks — semitrailers, buses and other heavy commercial vehicles — in Lake and Porter counties between 2003 and 2008, a Times computer-assisted investigation of federal transportation data for the region shows.
Of those trucks, 8,929 — more than one in four — were found to have safety violations deemed serious enough to take the trucks or drivers out of service.
"The reality is that about a quarter of the heavy trucks operating out there are probably operating with violations that would cause them to be taken out of service after a thorough inspection," said Scott Fleming, supervisor of state police heavy-truck inspectors in Northwest Indiana.
What state inspectors find during mostly random inspections merely scratches the surface of potentially unsafe trucks operating on region roadways, Fleming concedes.
It's a matter of a handful of heavy-truck inspectors attempting to serve as safety net for thousands of trucks that roll through the region each day.
In the six years of data reviewed by The Times, inspectors in Lake and Porter counties annually averaged about 5,809 heavy-truck inspections — many of which were random checks at the region's three weigh stations.
However, an estimated 2 million heavy trucks per year come through the trucking corridors of Interstate 80/94 and Interstate 65 alone. And resources to keep up with the problem are shrinking along with other taxpayer-supported services in an ailing economy, The Times probe revealed.
From the vantage point of a below-ground inspection pit, U.S. Department of Transportation heavy-truck inspector Darrel Edwards peered beneath a semitrailer, illuminating the undercarriage with his flashlight.
A blast of air nearby indicated what could become a serious problem with this rig. The reserve air tank — meant to help the 80,000-pound truck stop on the highway — was leaking and not properly secured to the truck.
Edwards took the truck out of service, requiring that the driver or company fix various problems before it could be driven from the weigh station lot.
The defects uncovered on that truck reflect a disturbing trend that federal and state police heavy-truck inspectors see every day at the region's three weigh stations.
In the six years of truck inspection records investigated by The Times, violations pertaining to faulty or out-of-adjustment brakes were among the most common safety infractions.
As a supervisor of state police heavy-truck inspectors in Northwest Indiana, Fleming knows what that can mean.
"The more weight you add to a vehicle, the longer the distance that is required for it to stop," Fleming said. "If an 80,000-pound truck can't stop in time to avoid hitting the 2,600-pound car in front of it, the outcome does not favor that smaller vehicle or the people inside it."
Federal and state police inspectors, mostly under Fleming's watch, found 12,931 brake violations during the six-year period reviewed by The Times, placing brake-related violations in the top 10 of all violations.
Many of those violations were found during inspections at Indiana State Police weigh stations, one on southbound I-65 near Lowell and two on I-80/94 near Chesterton.
But just as alarming to Fleming as major equipment problems are the plethora of violations showing truck drivers at risk of fatigue.
Asleep at the wheel?
During the six-year period, heavy-truck inspectors in Lake and Porter counties recorded 10,376 violations related to missing or faulty driver log books or drivers who went over the federal standard for consecutive hours worked without a break.
These violations made up nearly 10 percent of the more than 108,000 total violations discovered by inspectors in that time period.
Under federal law, heavy-truck operators must complete logbooks — whether on paper or through onboard computers — recording their hours worked and all breaks.
And federal regulations limit heavy-truck drivers to 11 hours of continuous driving within a 24-hour period before they must take a 10-hour break.
All the laws are intended to fight against driver distraction related to fatigue or falling asleep at the wheel, Fleming said.
Sleep and driver fatigue expert Carolyn Shur, of Canada-based Schur Goode Associates, said the problem is common with over-the-road truck drivers — and the consequences can be deadly.
Truck drivers operating their vehicles for more than 11 hours straight can be more prone to sleepiness or fatigue leading to distraction or daydreaming, Shur said.
Drivers' eyes can drift downward and focus more on the hoods of their rigs than the road, and semis can begin weaving in and out of lanes without drivers noticing, Shur said.
"We had a situation in Canada where a police officer was standing on the shoulder of a highway, and a semi veered on to the shoulder and hit the officer," Shur said. "The semi driver said he didn't even see the officer — and he probably didn't because he was over his hours."
In Northwest Indiana, more than 1,400 violations were recorded over six years for truckers operating their rigs beyond the 11-hour regulation, inspection records show.
Shur said many accidents occur at the end of long hauls — within 20 minutes of a final destination when truckers are most tired or distracted from fatigue.
Fleming admits keeping up with the heavy volume of truck traffic and serious violations in Northwest Indiana is a nearly impossible battle.
A total of five heavy-truck inspectors positioned at three weigh stations in Lake and Porter counties must keep up with the estimated 2 million heavy trucks that roll through the two counties each year.
A few times per year, U.S. Department of Transportation inspectors help in the effort, and some troopers focus roving patrols on areas of heavy truck traffic.
Eight years ago, The Times conducted a similar investigation, which showed that Indiana lagged other Midwestern states in the ratio of inspectors available to inspect heavy trucks.
Fleming said those numbers have not improved. Two years ago, state budget cuts forced a 50 percent reduction in the number of state police heavy-truck inspectors.
Ace in the hole
But state inspectors believe they have an ace in the hole.
Truckers passing through Northwest Indiana know they could be randomly stopped at a weigh station — or by roving patrols charged with catching trucks that drive around the weigh stations, Fleming said.
State police inspectors hope that random possibility is enough to deter truckers and their companies from operating unsafe vehicles or violating hours-of-service laws.
Fleming said he and his inspectors also have worked with trucking companies and owner-operators in developing safety programs and identifying potential violations before the trucks hit the road.
"Some trucking companies are trying to be very proactive about safety in Northwest Indiana," Fleming said.
"But some companies and drivers consider violations and fines a cost of doing business. It's a pretty shoddy way to do business, and they risk lawsuits and criminal charges if the end result is an accident or a roadway fatality."