GRANDVIEW -- The passing trucker didn't do anything wrong, but Washington State Patrol Officer Ron Alred made him stop at the weigh station anyway.
About a half mile away on Interstate 82, as the driver approached at 60 miles per hour, an electronic sensor over the freeway came up with some important information about the company operating the truck: It had a history of speeding infractions and long driving hours.
That was enough for the computer to recommend a physical inspection to Alred, seated inside the station. Alred flipped a switch that activated a light on the highway instructing the driver to pull in.
As it happened, the truck checked out as safe and the driver was on his way in 15 minutes.
Fourteen years into a program for electronic weigh-in and monitoring of trucks that traverse the state, truckers and the State Patrol are happy with the results. Highways are safer, and truckers have less down time waiting at weigh stations, they say.
Crash and financial statistics corroborate it.
On average, the state has seen a decline in truck-related fatalities over the years, said Darrin Grondel, director of the Washington Traffic Safety Commission and former commander of the State Patrol's commercial vehicle division.
Between 2008 and 2009, fatal crashes involving commercial vehicles dropped by about 50 percent to 32, earning the state an award from the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators. Fatalities dropped to 26 the next year but climbed to 37 for 2011.
New technology, paired with aggressive enforcement and public education fueled the improvements, Grondel said. "Safety is greatly enhanced," he said.
Meanwhile, the electronic weigh-in and monitoring technology saved the trucking industry $12.1 million by cutting down on idle time. That savings, in theory at least, lowers the price of food and good for consumers.
Network of sensors
Including Grandview and Cle Elum, 12 weigh stations across the state use the electronic system.
The program, a network of cameras, electronic sensors and scales built into the roadways, is called Commercial Vehicle Information Systems and Networks.
It works likes this.
Affixed to the windshields of more than 65,000 trucks -- 39 percent of those that ply the state's roads -- is a transponder, an electronic device about the size of a credit card that communicates with sensors on bars over the highway at weigh stations.
When the truck passes, the sensor recognizes the vehicle and pulls up all the information about the truck's company, safety record and history onto a computer screen. Meanwhile, the in-pavement scales weigh not only the trucks but also the weight over each axle.
If the company's record is clean and the vehicle is within weight restrictions, the trucker gets a green light and just keeps going without even slowing down.
That happened 1.18 million times last year, saving those trucks an average of five minutes and $10.28 each time.
Before, every truck pulled into the weigh station, as long as it was open. Now, only the trucks with problems are delayed.
"It allows us to focus on the at-risk trucks," said Lt. Jeff Closner, the Washington State Patrol's assistant commander for Region 3's commercial vehicle division.
More adopt the technology
More trucking companies are putting the transponders, which cost anywhere from $25 to $50 each, on their vehicles, said Jim Tutton, vice-president of the Washington Trucking Association.
Bigger companies have been the first to participate in the voluntary program. "The big guys all know what they need to do," Tutton said.
The efficiency has not meant fewer commercial vehicle enforcement officers, however, Closner said. They just focus their work elsewhere. The officers also inspect school busses, run emphasis patrols during busy seasons and respond to all commercial vehicle collisions.
Supervisors open and close the weigh stations and juggle the officers' schedules depending on the season. For example, during harvest, they will spend more time in the U.S. Highway 97 weigh station south of Toppenish or a remote scale alone U.S. Highway 12 near Naches.
They don't announce the schedules to prevent truckers from trying to skirt them.
Even when the stations are not open, the sensor and scales work and the computers record the passing of each truck. Most of the automated stations also have license plate cameras that work with the sensors.
The exceptions to the erratic schedule are all four of the state's port-of-entry weigh stations -- Bow Hill near Bellingham and Ridgefield near the Columbia River, both along Interstate 5; Spokane on I-90; and Plymouth south of Kennewick where I-82 crosses the Columbia River. They remain open 24/7 all year.