Copyright 2008 Dolan Media Company.  All rights reserved.

Rep calls for efficiency in trucking regulation in Oklahoma

by Janice Francis-Smith

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK: The Journal Record — How many state agencies does it take to regulate the trucking industry in Oklahoma? Currently, three agencies share the load. State Rep. Danny Morgan, D-Prague, thinks the system could be more efficient.

Morgan presented an interim study to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Criminal Justice on Tuesday to examine areas of duplicated effort among the state agencies that work with truckers, particularly regarding which state employees may issue fines for weight and safety violations.

Senate Bill 141, known as the Trucking One-Stop Act, cut the number of state agencies involved in the process from four down to three. The Legislature passed SB 141 in 2004 in the wake of a bribery scandal involving former Oklahoma Tax Commission employees, moving some enforcement duties and personnel from the Tax Commission to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.

Today, the three agencies involved in the process are the Corporation Commission, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and the Department of Public Safety. DPS issues permits for overweight or oversized trucks to travel on Oklahoma roads, coordinating with Transportation officials to make sure the trucks are routed along roads built to sustain the trucks' weight.

The Transportation Department owns and maintains the weigh stations along the highways, but employees of the Corporation Commission operate the weigh stations. Both Corporation Commission staff and highway patrol officers working under DPS have the authority to fine truckers for illegally driving an overweight vehicle in Oklahoma. Corporation Commission employees also check to make sure truckers have all of their credentials, including insurance verification, in order.

Morgan, owner of Morgan Well Service, has personal experience with the challenges faced by trucking companies trying to drive overweight and oversize trucks through the state. But Morgan said he has received complaints from business owners all over the state who are confused by the fact that their drivers can be stopped and fined by two different agencies for the same offense.

Trucks fined at the state level for driving overweight are fined about $200, regardless of whether they are a few pounds overweight or a few thousand pounds overweight. The state had once used a graduated fee schedule to charge the worst offenders higher fines, but a few years ago a legal dispute cast doubt on whether court clerks had the authority under the law to implement such fine schedules.

Morgan said he would introduce legislation put the graduated fee schedule back into place. DPS officials said the nationwide standard is to charge a penny for each pound a truck is overweight.

Charging one cent per pound of overweight would result in a substantially reduced fine for many trucks traveling in violation of the law. A truck would have to be 20,000 pounds overweight to reach the level of the current fine, at $200. Morgan said his legislation may not adhere to the penny-a-pound guideline, but the state should ensure that the most blatant violations of the law are fined accordingly.

The agencies make a distinction between who enforces safety violations, such as a broken taillight, and who enforces weight violations. Only DPS has the charge of enforcing safety regulations, yet the Corporation Commission has 14 staff members certified to conduct safety inspections. In order to maintain their certification, the commission staff members must conduct at least 30 safety inspections per year, but any safety violations discovered in the inspections are turned over to DPS for enforcement.

Marchi McCartney, director of the commission's transportation division, said having a few certified inspectors on hand allows gives the commission the ability to take trucks with egregious safety violations off the road immediately. But Morgan questioned why the state would make trucks sit and wait for safety inspections conducted solely for the purpose of maintaining someone's certification.

Commission employees' main focus is on weight violations. Maintenance of the state's nine weigh stations has suffered from a lack of funding for decades, leaving only about four weigh stations in good working order. Since the time when many of the weigh stations were built in the 1950s and ‘60s, the state's highway system has changed to the point where trucks can rather easily chose a route that bypasses all of the weigh station facilities.

Corporation Commission employees have responded to the problem with six portable scales. Commission employees find many violations by setting up the portable scales on roads where drivers do not expect to find a weigh station, she said. County governments have called the commission asking for help in enforcing weight restrictions on their roads, said McCartney.

The fact that both DPS and Corporation Commission employees can fine drivers for weight violations has caused some confusion, said Morgan. When a DPS officer writes a ticket for an overweight truck, those tickets are paid to the court of the county where the traffic stop was made, and drivers are given the option to appear in court or pay the fine by mail.

When Corporation Commission employees fine a trucker for a weight violation, the commission requires payment to be made immediately. In cases where the driver cannot pay by check or credit card, commission offers may collect the fine in cash. McCartney said the agency has a tracking system in place to ensure that all fines are accounted for. Many of the trucks stopped for weight violations are passing through the state, and if the money is not collected on the spot they will likely never see that driver again, she said.

Last year, 59 commission officers issued roughly twice as many citations on trucks as did their DPS counterparts, the 51 officers of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol's Troop S. Morgan said some trucks have lost a lot of time on the road by being stopped twice for the same offense.

The situation causes confusion because truckers often can't tell if they are talking to a commission representative or a DPS officer, and DPS has received complaints that should have been directed to the commission, he said. Morgan said he would also like to see the law changed so that citations issued by the commission are handled in municipal courts, the way tickets issued DPS officers are handled.

"If it was me, I'd like to have my day in court instead of trying to come back and get a refund if I'm proven innocent," said Morgan.

Over the last two years, efforts to improve the system have shown some results. In November 2006, DPS has 12 employees assigned to the task of issuing overweight and oversize permits. Though 120,000 permits were issued annually, truckers sometimes had to wait on hold for hours trying to get a permit.

Now, DPS has 16 employees working on permits, and due to some procedural changes the team was able to issue 218,000 permits last year, said Capt. Todd Blish of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol. Roughly one-third of the permits were issued via the agency's online system. DPS has the authority to hire another seven employees, but Blish said the positions will remain vacant until the agency can secure more office space in Shepherd Mall in 2008.

Still, truckers may wait on hold for long periods when they call on the agency's busiest days: Mondays, Fridays and the first workday after a holiday, said Blish.

Dan Case, executive director, Oklahoma Trucking Association, said his members would like to see more enforcement officers out on Oklahoma roads. Truckers who get away with driving their trucks illegally gain an unfair competitive advantage over companies that respect the law. And out-of-state trucks that damage the state's roads make it harder for Oklahoma companies to do their business.

Other states regulate their trucking industry in a manner similar to Oklahoma, but each state has its own way of doing things, said Case. Problems with enforcement will only continue to grow as the surrounding states grow their industries and attempt to ship more products along Oklahoma's highways.

"In a state where we have 77 counties and only 51 officers in Troop S, and we have only 4 functional weigh stations when we need nine, how can we do what we need to when we've got 28,000 trucks at the intersection of I-35 and I-40?" said Case. "I'd like to see more officers available in 77 counties, 24 hours a day."

Copyright 2008 Dolan Media Company.  All rights reserved.

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