Philly ‘truck war’ cools

By Keith Goble
state legislative editor

A few years back, many truckers driving through Philadelphia were encountering problems with truck enforcement officers who seemed bent on bleeding them of their finances. Truckers still talk about it.

But trucking groups say the bloodletting has all but dried up.

It all began in spring 2001, Philadelphia authorities took to the streets intent on doing battle with truck violators in the name of safety. City police invoked a never-used, 1999 state law allowing them to impound unsafe trucks.

A nine-member, Philadelphia Police truck force took to the streets with the power to stop any truck for inspection, without cause. If tickets issued exceeded $250, trucks could be impounded.

Offending drivers were required to go to traffic court and pay truck bail. The bail covered fines, court costs, towing, storage and paperwork.

To boot, drivers were required to fix the rig at the tow lot or have it towed elsewhere for repairs.

In the first 12 months of enforcement, more than 1,600 trucks were pulled off Philadelphia-area roads and seized, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Gail Toth, executive director of the New Jersey Motor Truck Association, told Land Line that truckers were backed into a corner because of what appeared to be overzealous enforcement.

Toth's group and its counterpart across the state line, the Pennsylvania Motor Truck Association, asked the truck brigade to lighten up and let truckers make minor repairs on roadsides instead of having the trucks towed, sometimes costing truckers hundreds of dollars including fines.

Toth bemoaned the seizures as "an abuse of power," as well as "un-American and unconstitutional."

Jim Runk, president of the PMTA, said the truck brigade had good intentions but lacked focus. He said one of the main issues the city had with truckers was with those from out of the area who weren't paying fines.

"I don't have a problem with collecting fines. If you owe fines and you're a scofflaw, take the truck until the fines are paid. Then they can get their truck back," Runk said. "That's how it all got started."

But Runk took issue with the enforcement when it started swallowing up local truckers for such things as paperwork violations.

"They were getting local guys who (the truck force) knew right where to find (the local guys) but they were taking them off the road," Runk said.

After failing to make headway on the issue with the Philadelphia Police, the truckers responded by threatening a federal civil rights lawsuit citing "abusive treatment and arbitrarily going after trucks."

By early 2002, a state judge intervened and agreed with the truckers. Soon after, the punishment-first policy started to subside. Focus concentrated on trucks that pose an eminent danger to the public.

Today, the trucking groups on both sides of the state line say there's a much more peaceable relationship between law enforcement and truckers.

"I haven't heard anything on that in some time, maybe once in the past couple of years," Runk said. "I think it's calmed down. Things are calm, quiet and fairly peaceful."

"I think they got the message," Toth said.