In ‘cat-and-mouse game’ with truckers, FDOT has dull claws; As many as 30 percent of tractor-trailers, dump trucks overweight
By: Fred Hiers / Star-Banner (Ocala, Florida); Monday, October 22, 2007
OCALA – Carlos Reinoso sat with the door of his dump truck slung open and his legs dangling over the side. He couldn’t have looked more bored.
The Cuban immigrant chain smoked as the truck idled beneath him, its diesel fumes mixing with the pungent aroma of 22.4 tons of hot asphalt in the bed behind him.
Florida Department of Transportation Sgt. Quincy Linan had pulled him over at 7 a.m. earlier this month on Northwest Blitchton Road.
Linan’s job is to find trucks exceeding the state’s weight limit. Tractor-trailers, along with their freight, are not supposed to weigh more than 80,000 pounds. Dump trucks, like Reinoso’s, shouldn’t weigh more than 64,000 pounds to 70,000 pounds, based on their wheel size.
“It’s like a cat-and-mouse game,” Linan said. “We try to catch them. They try to get away.”
But in this game, the cats don’t have much in the way of fangs or claws.
As for the mice?
Well, they sit bored in the cab of their trucks, slightly annoyed and anxious to get back to work.
Drivers of overweight vehicles can afford not to be too worried, because the law is stacked in their favor. Fines for violations are small, FDOT inspectors are stretched too thin and the trucking industry in Florida is strong.
As a result, as much as 30 percent of tractor-trailers and dump trucks are overweight, experts estimate, posing a danger to other motorists and damaging road and bridge infrastructure.
Whether they’re overweight or not, the damage trucks do to people on the nation’s roads is well-documented.
One out of eight traffic fatalities in 2005 nationwide was the result of a collision involving a truck, according to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis.
During that same year, 5,212 people died in truck-related accidents, up from the previous two years.
Florida ranks up there with the worst of them.
In 2005, Florida made up almost 8 percent of the nation’s fatal accidents involving large trucks, second only to Texas.
And weight does matter.
Studies show that overweight trucks are more likely to be in accidents. They also roll over more easily and need more time and distance to stop. A truck weighing 120,000 pounds needs 50 percent more space and time to stop than a truck weighing the legal 80,000 pounds.
Whether a truck has that extra space and time could spell the difference between a fender bender and someone dying.
FINES OFFER LITTLE DETERRENCE
The law, however, provides little deterrence against companies willing to run overloaded trucks to increase profits.
Florida’s fines for overweight trucks haven’t changed since 1953, when they were first set at a nickel a pound. When inflation is factored in, the penalty is worth less than a penny in today’s prices.
“Florida’s weight fines are so low that they were simply a nuisance to many truckers and considered a part of doing business,” according to an Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA) report to the Florida Legislature in 2001. The agency works for the Legislature and the report was part of a study justifying FDOT’s motor carrier compliance program. Florida law requires justification studies of all the state’s departments.
OPPAGA also advised lawmakers to increase the fines, especially for repeat offenders. But legislators never acted on the recommendations.
Dump trucks get even more of a break. Their nickel fines don’t start until they’ve exceeded the weight limit by 600 pounds. Before that, they pay a flat $10 fine.
Also, as long as an overweight truck is less than 6,000 pounds over the limit, the law allows Linan to fine violators, but he has to let them continue on their way with the extra weight on board.
That means a tractor-trailer weighing 2,500 pounds over the legal limit would pay a $125 fine if the truck was caught. A dump truck weighing the same amount over the legal limit would pay a $105 fine.
So why aren’t the laws tougher? It’s not because lawmakers are unaware of the dangers of overloaded trucks. And it’s not because they don’t know that the penalties for breaking the law are light. It’s because there is little political will to make the consequences harsher.
The last time state lawmakers considered hiking the nickel-per-pound penalty was 2003, when former state Rep. Ed Jennings of Gainesville proposed increasing the fines for the most egregious offenders. Jennings was hoping to increase revenues for the state and make roads a little safer.
The bill never made it to either the Senate or House floor for a vote. The proposal was defeated at committee levels.
“I woke up a sleeping giant, but in this case the giant never slept,” Jennings said recently. “The lobbying was intense.”
Resistance to the bill didn’t just come from the trucking industry, he said, but also from businesses that depended on trucks to ship their goods to customers.
“I did not contemplate the breadth and width of the role the trucking industry had in our state,” Jennings said. “The proposal just couldn’t get any traction. The trucking industry just wanted to leave things as they were.”
It’s uncertain whether the fines will ever change.
Sen. Carey Baker, R-Eustis, is the Senate’s Transportation Committee chairman, but he doesn’t know why the fines have remained the same for more than half a century.
Baker was a member of the Florida House between 2000 and 2004 and sat on the Legislature’s transportation committees twice. He was not on the committee when Jennings made his proposal to hike the fines for overweight trucks. He won a seat in the Florida Senate in 2004 and has been there ever since.
Baker acknowledged there is a problem with too many overweight trucks, but said he’s not sure increasing the fines would do any good.
He said he “would look into this and make some recommendations.”
“Probably enforcement is a hundred times more effective than fines,” Baker said. “If they’re not getting caught at 5 cents a pound, they won’t get caught paying 10 cents a pound.”
Baker said he would not support increasing funding for FDOT so it could put more weight enforcement officers on the roads. Instead, he said he would discuss the issue of enforcement and overweight trucks with FDOT administrators.
Linan, who works on the front lines trying to stop overweight trucks, sees the problem in simple terms.
“It comes down to the almighty dollar,” Linan said when asked why so many trucks operate overweight. The best way to put an end to the trucking industry’s focus on the bottom line at the expense of safety is with more enforcement and heftier fines, he said.
“The greater the penalty, the greater the compliance,” Linan said.
Others share Linan’s view.
According to the 2001 OPPAGA study, researchers recommended hiking fines, at least to pay for the damage overweight trucks do to roads and bridges.
The agency recommended that fines should be increased to 56 cents per pound for violators hauling 10,000 pounds or more over the legal limit. The agency also recommended a step system of fines ranging between 7 cents per pound to 31 cents per pound for violations less than 10,000 pounds. Anything less than the 501 pound violation would result in an automatic $35 fine.
In its study, the agency also predicted the greater fines would result in fewer violations.
The agency also recommended all violators caught operating overweight should be required to off-load the extra freight at the FDOT officer’s discretion. That means the driver would have to contact another truck to take his excess freight. OPPAGA said the fines and the forced off-loading would both strongly deter overloading trucks.
OPPAGA officials would not comment about the 2001 report other than to refer to its recommendations.
FDOT spokesman for compliance, Lt. Jeff Frost, also would not comment on what he thought the fines should be or how weight violators could be forced to comply with the law.
He said it was not his department’s role to lobby Tallahassee for changes.
His boss, Maj. Ken Carr, chief of the motor carrier compliance office, special operations, agreed with Frost and said that lawmakers should decide what level of fines is appropriate and if other measures should be taken to deter violators.
“The Legislature makes that judgment,” he said. “That’s not something we would initiate with them.”
“THE BOSS SAYS HE DOESN’T CARE ABOUT DOT”
But if motorists think Florida’s overweight fines are not enough of a deterrent, other states in the region are no better.
Texas, Georgia and Alabama’s fines are about the same as Florida’s. They use different penalty rates per pound depending on the degree of the violation, but all told, the fines are about the same as Florida’s.
And just like Florida, studies in those states also show a problem with too many overweight trucks.
Meanwhile, Linan is overwhelmed by the number of overweight trucks in his part of Florida. Florida has about 200 FDOT inspectors who stop trucks and weigh them with portable scales. That leaves Linan and others like him spread thin across the state, with about one officer per county per shift.
As a result, Reinoso can afford to look bored waiting in his dump truck. His only real penalty is that he will be a little late getting home to his wife.
But Reinoso said he and other drivers have no choice but to drive overweight when they’re told.
Reinoso, who is 53, has a pregnant wife and three adult children. He says he needs the money and can’t afford to give his boss any lip about driving overweight.
As Linan weighed Reinoso’s dump truck, Reinoso said that if he refused to drive an overweight truck, another driver would be happy to take his place.
“You have to do what you have to do,” Reinoso said. “The boss says he doesn’t care about DOT. He says just do it and drive.”
Asked if he sometimes drove his dump truck knowing it was overweight, Reinoso replied: “Sometime I do. You don’t have any other choice.”
It turned out that Reinoso was driving overweight when Linan stopped him. His fine totaled $360. The company he works for will pay the penalty. Typically, the trucks’ owners pay the fines, not drivers.
The fine was something of a fluke, though.
Reinoso’s truck has an extra axle and set of tires he lowers to help carry extra weight. He said he forgot to lower it. Otherwise, his fine would have been $35.
Linan estimates that 30 percent of tractor-trailers and dump trucks are running overweight on Florida’s roads.
That means motorists near those trucks are at a greater risk because overweight trucks are more prone to accidents.
“It’s not going to be good,” Linan said about accidents between cars and trucks. “Trucks are half a [locomotive], basically. It’s the law of physics .