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The Trip Inspection: Driver Liability

by Jim Park

Ontario is taking a long-overdue look at the trip inspection requirements for drivers (see our lead story, "Is This Progress?"). The proposed revisions stem from the need to balance real-world practicality with compliance and common sense. A delicate balance indeed. In defining what a driver is responsible for during his trip inspection, they've made the task a little easier. What's still missing is a mechanism to insure that the noted defects are dealt with.

The problem with the current way of doing things is that the driver is often placed in the unenviable position of having to balance compliance requirements with delivery deadlines and company budgets. If a defect is discovered during a pre-trip, the time it takes to have it repaired may upset the schedule, and the cost of a roadside service-call can be positively frightening. Any budget-conscious operator will tell you that the work can be done less expensively at home. Consequently, the driver often finds himself caught between all of these competing and often conflicting interests.

The larger issue here is the driver's role in the fleet's preventative maintenance program. But there's still the question of the fleet's willingness to accept the driver's diagnosis of the problem. When picking up a dropped trailer for example, would the fleet be willing to dispatch a service truck to tend to what appears to be a loose wheel nut, or would the driver be asked to "run it back to the yard" for a closer look. That assumes, or course, that the yard is in the same city. Out on the road, it's a little more complicated. And what if the wheel was to fall off during the trip back to the yard?

For all the potential in the proposed trip inspection revisions, there's still nothing that deals with the cost to the driver of having the defects repaired. Delays, missed dispatches and the pressure of making the delivery appointments tend to encourage a driver to keep moving. The unfortunate part of all this is that the guy with the smoking gun is often the one held accountable when something goes wrong.

As it stands today, the fine for a single out-of-adjustment brake will cost a driver more than half of a week's take-home pay. However, it won't cost the last technician who worked on the truck a dime. Nor will it make that much of a dent in the fleets overall financial picture. That's a pretty strong incentive for the driver to get down and dirty when it comes to a proper inspection. But apparently it's not enough. Even if it was, consider this:

The pre-trip inspection as described in the driver's handbook lists 21 items that require inspection. But the book provides no detail at all on precisely what to look for and how to analyze a potential defect.

The CVSA Uniform out-of-service criteria, on the other hand, lists more than 90 items requiring inspection. It further describes in exquisite detail, exactly what constitutes an out of service defect. To use an academic analogy, if the driver's handbook is the study material, then the CVSA out-of-service criteria is the exam.

A typical CVSA level-one inspection is conducted by two people dressed for the occasion using creepers, flashlights, wire brushes and tape measures and they have all the time in the world to do their job. Maintenance shops work under similar circumstances but have additional pressures such as turnaround time and maintenance budgets to consider. Drivers, on the other hand, are usually required to work outdoors in all manner of weather, are seldom given any more than 15 minutes to complete the task.

Here it is in a nutshell. A driver who has not been required to take any formal training nor to have any formal knowledge of matters mechanical, is required by law to pass judgment on the condition of a vehicle, which has been inspected under less than ideal conditions in an unrealistic amount of time. Ultimately, his work will be judged by a process designed to discover defects by people whose livelihoods depend on their findings. Taken at face value, even the driver who does a pre-trip as required by law won't stand a chance of his work measuring up to that of a CVSA level-one inspection. In order to meet today's zero-tolerance policy drivers are essentially required to perform the equivalent of an annual safety inspection on each and every vehicle they operate, each and every day.

Where to From Here?

Will the proposed changes in the trip inspection requirements make that much of a difference? Drivers will continue to have a role to play in the process. But one has to wonder what might make drivers more interested in doing the inspection in the first place?

Several years ago, I participated in the Road-Check 95 blitz as an observer. I spent the day at the scale located on Hwy. 17, just west of Thunder Bay. I saw an alarming number of problems cited by the inspectors, almost all of which could have easily been found during a reasonably thorough trip inspection. It's not as if these inspection blitzes just happen: they're announced well ahead of time. Everybody knows when and where these crackdowns are going to take place.

Why the MTO inspectors rather than the drivers discovered the defects is not for me to say, but in an over the road situation -especially in Canada- repair facilities are few and far between. There's also the cost of road service to contend with. But at the end of the day, it's still up to the driver to insure the vehicle is in suitable condition before venturing out on to the highway.

The scary part of all of this is the potential to be held liable in the event of an accident. Brake adjustment really is this industry's Achilles' heel. If there's a chink in the armor, brake adjustment is it. And if you think the litigation attorneys representing the victims of a truck collision aren't going to conduct a rigorous post-accident examination of the truck, then you're living in some dream world. If in any way the lawyers can even imply that the physical condition of the truck, brake adjustment included, might have contributed to the accident, they will. Even if you're squeaky-clean legal, and the accident was entirely the other driver's fault, guess who will pay at least a portion of the costs?

Generally, drivers have little input to the maintenance of a piece of company-owned equipment. Nor are they in a position to influence the quality of the mechanics that do the work, the selection of the replacement parts or the service intervals. But the driver has an immensely important role to play when it comes to reporting defects, then insuring the repair work is carried out. It's regrettable that the driver is often left to weigh his options when it comes to the inevitable delays that arise when having a truck serviced.

If the revisions they're looking at in Ontario are good first steps, then drivers will need to embrace the new bit of latitude they're being given on the minor defects. But, the driver will have to begin standing firm on the more significant defects. Remember, if an accident occurs after you've signed off a clean vehicle inspection report, then somebody's going to ask why you decided to drive a defective piece of equipment.

To use an aviation analogy, the pilot-in-command always has the final say, and it's he who takes the rap when something goes wrong. The same applies here on the ground, but that's a point that never seems to be made abundantly clear. The loss of a few hours of your time is cheap compared to a charge of criminal negligence causing bodily harm, or even death.

There have been several incidents in the U.S. (where else?) where drivers have been charged and held responsible for improper operating practices. In order to make the new provisions work, we'll need the fleets to come to the table and remove the disincentive to reporting defects that presently exists. Namely, the potential loss of income caused by missing a load or waiting around while the repairs are made.

The issue of driver training plays an important role in this discussion as well. Too often, it is taken for granted that a driver knows how to do a proper trip inspection. Not the lame "circle-check" mentioned in the driver's handbook but a proper and thorough inspection. It's time to go into the office and demand the proper training in how to detect significant defects.

It's odd that drivers can be charged with failing to perform trip inspections, or with driving an unsafe vehicle, while the mechanics never feel the pinch themselves. By imposing stiff fines on the drivers for failing to conduct an inspection, The Ministry seems to be saying it is the driver's responsibility to hold the fleet's feet to the fire in order to insure the work is done. Maybe it's time to take some of that responsibility seriously.

When you're pilot-in-command, you live and die by your ability to make the correct decision. In our case, the correct decision is to never leave the ground until you're completely satisfied that your equipment meets all the requirements. You're not paid anywhere near enough to take those kinds of chances. Nobody is.

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