Pennsylvania communities differ on allowing local cops to inspect trucks

By Greg Grisolano, Land Line staff writer | 2/22/2013

The mayors of two neighboring Pennsylvania communities have both said public safety is the primary factor in proposals aimed at training local police to perform commercial vehicle inspections. But while one town’s plan is awaiting approval from its local officials, the other’s plan has been scuttled over objections from business owners and residents.

A proposal to send two local police officers to a state school for certification in commercial truck inspections is expected to be voted upon by members of the Chambersburg city council on Feb. 25.

Mayor Pete Lagiovane said the proposal to certify the officers to perform roadside inspections is aimed at increasing public safety in the community of about 20,500 residents along Interstate 81 in Franklin County.

“We have tens of thousands of trucks coming through every day,” Lagiovane said in a phone interview with Land Line earlier this week. “We straddle Interstate 81. It’s not just a few dozen trucks a day, it’s thousands of trucks per day. Over the last year or so, we’ve had one or two incidents of truck accidents. We don’t have any certified inspectors on our police force. We want to send two police officers to inspection school.”

Chambersburg’s proposal would allow the officers to become certified to perform Level I Standard Inspections and Level III Drivers Only inspections. Lagiovane estimated the officers would each be performing around 10 inspections per month. Certified truck inspectors are mandated to perform at least 70 inspections per year in order to keep their certification.

While the Chambersburg council ponders the inspection proposal, the neighboring community of Mercersberg, 25 miles to the southwest, has abandoned its efforts to have a local police officer perform truck inspections, following an outcry from residents and local business owners.

Mary-Anne Gordon, executive director for the Tuscarora Chamber of Commerce, which includes Mercersburg, said her organization opposed the inspections after receiving “more than 100” complaints from its members.

“When you’re in an extremely rural population, surrounded by a lot of agriculture, you’re going to end up stopping a lot of local trucks, or at least delivery trucks heading to local businesses,” she said. “Membership and non-members, and truck drivers who live here, came to us with concerns. First of all, the time a stop can take (anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours) so if a business is paying for that time, it’s also affecting schedules, affecting fuel, time, manpower, et cetera.”

Mercersburg Mayor James Zeger said he has instructed the chief of police to discontinue the truck inspections, effective immediately. Zeger cited a high volume of complaints from business owners in the community as his reason to stop the inspections.

“The rancor and the discord in the community was at a high level, and that’s not what I wanted to have in our small town,” he said. “This was done in the spirit of trying to get through this. We’re going to put this behind us, move on and do things right for our community.”

Zeger said the Mercersburg inspections began a few months ago, when the borough hired a retired state-trooper as a part-time police officer. The new officer was already a state-certified inspector, and is required to perform a minimum of 70 inspections per year to maintain certification. The new officer performed 32 inspections in the community.

“Our emphasis was simply safety,” Zeger said. “We wanted to make sure that the trucks going through town were safe. Out of the trucks inspected, 64 percent had infractions. Everything from cracked brake lines, to outdated inspections, to other minor issues.”

No decision has been made by the council as to whether the part-time officer will remain employed by the borough.

“It will be his call if he wants to stay on or not and we hope he does,” Zeger said.

The mayor also said performing a large number of inspections in a short time was “a detriment” to the process, as well as the limited number of places in town where inspections could be performed without blocking traffic.

“We also had asphalt trucks being held up, causing the contents to cool off,” he said. “Feed and milk trucks being stopped, causing delays. There were only a few places to pull the trucks off at in order to do inspections.”

Both Zeger and Lagiovane said that comparing the proposals, as well as the communities to one another, is probably not a fair comparison. Mercersburg has a population of only about 1,600 residents, and is roughly one square mile in size. It also does not have Chambersburg’s proximity to a major interstate.

Lagiovane said Chambersburg was considering the proposal “before the Mercersburg deal,” and his city’s plan would be markedly different from what Mercersburg was doing in terms of execution.

“(Mercersburg) did a whole bunch of things they probably shouldn’t have,” he said. “Number one, they just pulled the trucks over on the side of the road. We’re not going to be doing that. Number two, they were hitting trucks in town making deliveries. We’re not going to be doing that. We would try to hit trucks coming in or leaving the borough. And we’d probably do the inspections early in the morning.”

“Nobody’s against being safe,” Gordon said. “Some of those potential violations could be found by a passive police officer who is stopping the trucks for legitimate (reasons).

“Chambersburg sits right next to, if not within a state DOT inspection site on the highway that travels through it,” she said. “I would think theirs is redundant and something that their tax payers need to worry about. Even though it’s illegal to use DOT as a revenue-generator, I think that’s probably the first thing they looked at in both situations. Specifically for Chambersburg.”

Lagiovane said the issue is one of public safety “and it’s the only reason it’s being brought up.”

“My feeling is the word would get out over time, that the borough has safety inspectors and it would thereby encourage the drivers to make sure their vehicles are well-maintained and in good condition,” he said. “Considering the number of trucks we have going through, we’re looking at inspecting less than one-tenth of one percent that go through. Plus having these officers trained if we did have an accident, they can do the truck inspection right there.”

Gordon said she believes the policies in both communities have larger implications than just safety.

“What we are seeing here in this county is happening across the United States, where there are police departments and small town governments who are policing through fear,” she said. “‘We know what’s best for you and we are going to do it without your consent.’ (The residents) realize in the small towns like Mercersburg that we have a voice, and we can come together because we know what’s best for ourselves.”

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