It can be more than a little intimidating. You’re traveling down the interstate and there is a large truck in the lane beside you, another truck in front of you, and a third truck coming up behind you. If things go wrong or one driver isn’t paying attention, the result could be disastrous.
How do you know these trucks, their drivers, or the carriers they are hauling for are safe? You don’t. That is the job of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Motor Vehicle Enforcement officers. For decades these dedicated men and women have been identifying potential safety problems, both with the mechanical workings of the large vehicles and with the drivers behind the wheel. Along the way they continue to improve their processes to increase the safety of everyone on Iowa’s roads.
One major improvement has recently changed the way the officers screen vehicles at the weight scale facilities in Dallas and Jasper counties. The 360SmartView system electronically screens vehicles entering the weigh station and almost instantaneously flags each truck that may require extra attention from law enforcement.
Lt. Tracy Barker explained how the identification process works, “Each carrier is assigned a safety rating based on inspections, citations, and other factors related to the trucks in its fleet. This safety rating goes into a nationwide database linked to the carrier’s unique USDOT number. 360SmartView uses cameras at the entrance ramp to the scale to take three photos: one each of the truck, the license plate, and the USDOT number. The system automatically checks to ensure the license plate is one that is assigned to the carrier bearing that USDOT number. Inside the building, officers see the images and also the carrier’s safety rating on a computer monitor. The system automatically directs trucks from carriers with good ratings to bypass the scale and continue their trip with very little interruption. If there is a question of the license plate, USDOT number, or safety rating, the system directs the truck up to the scale facility where an officer can take a closer look.”
Barker explained why linking the license plate and USDOT numbers is important. “There are less than reputable carriers out there who will copy and use USDOT numbers of highly rated carriers on their trucks. Because there are so many numbers, unless we’re doing an inspection, these mismatches can be missed. Now, the system will catch and flag any mismatches so we can investigate.”
The system was installed on two of the Interstate 80 scale sites first due to the amount of truck traffic on that route. Barker said, “It is important for both safety and commerce that these trucks keep moving to get the goods we use every day to their destination. Using the new system, we can keep the safe trucks on the road and focus our attention on carriers that may not have the best safety-related track record. In the past, and still at the scale sites that don’t have the system, all trucks are run through the scale when the facility is open. That sometimes backs traffic up onto the interstate, which is unsafe for everyone. If an obvious safety issue is observed, the officer on duty will pull a truck around to do an inspection. Our officers are trained to spot safety issues. Many of us have been doing this a long time, so we have a lot of knowledge of which carriers have high safety standards and which do not, but we are still not able to have the kind of accuracy and speed we have now with 360SmartView. It’s just a much smarter way to sort vehicles for inspection.”
Another benefit to the system is an automatic screening of every truck for safety violations that may have put the vehicle out of service in another state. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s Performance and Registration Information Systems Management (PRISM) is a database officers typically check when a truck is pulled in for inspection. Barker says the new automated system runs this check on every truck entering the ramp. He said, “So now instead of running a PRISM check on 10-12 vehicles in a shift, 1,000 or more checks are run automatically and we can have a high degree of confidence that the trucks we’re pulling in for inspection are those that have reason to need a closer look.”
If a truck is flagged for inspection, the officer can use the system to access to up to 15 previous inspections performed on that truck anywhere in the country. “Another benefit of 360SmartView is that it brings databases we used to have to check separately into one platform. It’s much more efficient since we don’t have to log into several systems.”
Barker said not only does the system help identify potential safety risks, it can also help carriers improve their safety ratings. He said, “It’s pretty common for a driver to request an inspection because the carrier is newer and hasn’t had many opportunities to prove their commitment to safety. A low safety rating doesn’t necessarily mean that carrier has had infractions, it might just be that they don’t have enough inspections to get a better rating.”
Soon the system will not be limited to just two scale sites. “All of our officers are being trained on the system and we will be able to access it from a mobile app,” said Barker. “That is going to be huge for our folks to be able to access all the records about a carrier and a vehicle right from their phone or laptop, no matter where they are.”
This state-of-the-art system was provided at no charge to the state through a grant from the FMCSA. Barker says the system Iowa installed is the basic version. Other states using 360SmartView have made enhancements that Iowa can utilize also. “Our next step is to travel to Indiana to see how they are using the system,” he said, “The great thing about this is that once a state invests in an update, it is available to all other states.”