“Did you do a pre-trip?” This a question drivers are sometimes asked. The answer is almost always “yes.” It’s even in the driver’s record of duty status. In Canada, drivers are still required to complete a Daily Vehicle Inspection Report. In the U.S., the form only needs to be completed if defects are found — no form means passing condition.
This is also a question Kerri Wirachowski often asks drivers when she visits weigh stations and other inspection sites. She’s the Director of the Roadside Inspection Program for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA). She’s no longer a vehicle inspector, but she visits those sites to stay current on what both drivers and inspectors are facing.
“On a recent inspection, I pointed out a crack in the windshield and the driver told me it had been there for more than a week,” she said. “I found a cracked rim and he said he just thought it was a scratch.”
Wirachowski pointed out that recording things like this on an inspection form brings another set of eyes to the problem, and can often the problem can be it fixed before a CVSA inspector finds it.
She’s sympathetic to drivers that haven’t been trained how to properly inspect — to a point.
“I’d ask drivers what size brake chambers are on their truck, and they don’t know,” she said. If a driver doesn’t know the correct push rod travel limits, he or she obviously can’t check brake adjustment during a pre-trip inspection.
“You only have one truck, right?” she said. “Then you probably only need to know two types of chambers and have a way to check them. But they don’t.”
Part of the problem with brake adjustment is that automatic slack adjusters have been required on new tractors for over 27 years.
“There’s a mindset that you can just forget about it,” Wirachowski said of automatic slack adjusters. “Well, that’s not true. You can’t just put it on there, then forget it and never go look at the maintenance of the brakes, bushings and everything else.”
Trucks equipped with disc brakes don’t have slack adjuster issues, but those brakes aren’t foolproof, either. Rotors build up heat and can crack from the stress.
Another area Wirachowski says is often a problem during inspections is tire pressure.
“A lot of trailers are equipped with tire inflation systems, but how does the driver know that’s working properly?” she said, noting that many such systems come with a monitoring system the driver can see.
“A lot of the new tractors out there come with the self-check, so the driver can just hit the switch and go around and see all the lights flashing, see the ABS (automatic braking system indicator light) cycling and everything,” she continued.
However, those systems don’t help much if they aren’t used or if the driver doesn’t know how to use them properly.
Some drivers still check tires the old-fashioned way with a hammer, a tire “thumper” or even with a kick. These methods might identify a flat, but they’re not very accurate at finding underinflated tires.
“I always used to joke that I had about a 20-pound tire kicker, because every time I found a low tire the pressure was never higher than about 30 psi,” Wirachowski said. “If a tire is 10 or 15 pounds low, it’s hard to tell that with a kick.”
Wirachowski said that carriers can take steps to help their drivers keep trucks in good repair.
“If they’re doing a PM and don’t measure all of the slack adjusters, they’re wasting their time,” she said. “With extended oil change intervals, it’s important that they check everything when they have the truck in.”
Many carriers, however, use vendors for their PMs so trucks can be serviced without being routed to a terminal. Two things need to happen when vendors are used, according to Wirachowski. The first is that the carrier has to trust that the vendor is doing a complete PM, including a thorough inspection. The second thing is up to the driver.
“We had a guy come in yesterday. Eight out of 10 bolts holding the hub cap on were loose, and all the oil had leaked out,” she said. “I looked over at the other side of the truck and an inner wheel seal was leaking and had contaminated the brakes on that side. The driver said he had told the vendor to check it.”
It’s important that drivers check the service provider’s work, she said. If they’re not sure what to check for, they may have to get someone from their carrier’s maintenance department on the phone to walk them through the process.
It’s easy for drivers to assume maintenance items are taken care of, especially when the carrier tells them where to stop and sends instructions directly to the vendor. But ultimately, it’s the driver who’s stuck on the side of the road when the truck is out of service for a repair that should have been made.
Wirachowski says ELDs (electronic logging devices) have cleaned up a lot of the “form and error” citations that used to be written with paper logs, but she pointed to another issue.
“Drivers are required to have the (ELD) user manual and to know how to transfer electronic data to law enforcement,” she said. “Many don’t have a clue.”
ELDs aren’t a pre-trip item, but they can cause the driver to fail a roadside inspection.
ELD manufacturers often make sure instructions are included in the device so they can’t be lost — but that doesn’t help if the driver can’t find them. And with more than 500 different ELDs registered with the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, inspectors can’t know how every single one works, she said.
“All the information is there but the driver gets cited because he doesn’t know how to access it,” she said.
Carriers often trade trucks regularly, so drivers benefit from newer equipment that is less likely to have inspection defects. Still, it’s the driver who has to wait for repairs when inspections are failed, and those delays can cause the driver to miss the next load, hitting drivers right in the pocket.
Pre-trip inspections help drivers to know the condition of their equipment — before someone in uniform writes it down for them.
Cliff Abbott is an experienced commercial vehicle driver and owner-operator who still holds a CDL in his home state of Alabama. In nearly 40 years in trucking, he’s been an instructor and trainer and has managed safety and recruiting operations for several carriers. Having never lost his love of the road, Cliff has written a book and hundreds of songs and has been writing for The Trucker for more than a decade.