Washington State Patrol brass brag that their troopers are under no quotas to enforce the rules of the road.
That’s true - except when there’s a wad of public money.
Angry officers from Spokane to Seattle complain the patrol’s annual push to inspect commercial trucks is a blatant quota that wastes their time, hassles drivers and sucks up your tax dollars.
“This isn’t right,” says a veteran Spokane trooper who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals from his bosses. “Some of us still have morals and we are still out here to do things the right way.”
According to leaked WSP memos, troopers this year have been ordered to conduct 25,864 level 3 inspections of truckers traveling state highways.
The cursory inspections take an average of 10 to 15 minutes each. After an officer pulls a truck over, he talks to the driver, checks the paperwork and walks around the rig looking for any obvious violations.
With the weather warming, troopers are being told to get going on their inspections. A memo currently hanging in the WSP’s north Spokane office tells officers, “we will need 28 level III’s by March 17. This comes out to three per person per week.”
If that isn’t a quota, what is?
Information gathered from the inspections is eventually pooled in a federal database designed to keep an eye on and improve the safety of the trucking industry.
For all this effort, the patrol receives about 200 grand in federal and state taxes each year, says Capt. Tim Erickson of the WSP’s Commercial Vehicle Division in Olympia. The money is used to hire officers and buy equipment.
Erickson hypes the inspection program, which began in the mid-1980s, as an effective way to get the occasional rogue truck driver off the asphalt.
When the program started “we found about 40 percent of trucks couldn’t pass federal standards,” says Erickson. “After 10 years the equipment is a lot better.”
But irate troopers counter that the 5,000-plus hours they spend on these contrived stops could be used to nail real villains like drunken drivers and speeders.
“I’ve sat by the side of the highway waiting for trucks to come along and let cars blow by me at 78 miles an hour,” says a Seattle trooper who wouldn’t give his name.
When the officer complained, he says his supervisors threatened him with a reprimand if he didn’t get a certain number of inspections a month.
“If you want to call it a quota, call it a quota,” scoffs Erickson. But “if they don’t want to do (the inspections), nothing’s going to happen to them.”
A Spokane WSP supervisor, who didn’t want his name used for the same fearful reasons, says the inspections have been a sore spot with troopers for years.
“I mean, some guys will go out and count mile posts if you tell ‘em to,” he says. “But those with a spark of intelligence resent having something like this forced down their throats.”
Critics say pressure to fulfill their inspection quotas means truckers get pulled over for the most dubious reasons. In some areas the limited number of trucks means the same drivers get pulled over as many as five times.
“We have to have some probable cause to stop a commercial vehicle,” says another trooper, between chuckles. “But, hey, there are zillion things on a truck you can look for. There’s always gonna be something.
“For example, I don’t know many troopers who’ll stop a car for going 61 (miles an hour). But to get the inspections done, we pull over trucks all the time for 61.”
At Spokane’s Flying J truckstop, Mike, a long-haul driver with 20 years experience, agrees the inspection routine is a petty nuisance.
How petty? Once he was pulled over for having a dirty license plate.
“It was a brand new truck. I’d just gone through a rainstorm,” says Mike with disgust.
“Yeah, the truck industry used to be bad, but it’s cleaned up a lot. There’s a point where you have to say enough is enough.”