A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's the point of truck weigh stations?

May 7, 1999

Dear Straight Dope:

There's a truck weighing station on the highway near where I live, but I've never seen it open and in use--I've never seen any other one in use, either. What's the point of these things, and are they still used? Is there a schedule of some sort?

In my state, New Mexico, there are five weighing stations at ports of entry into the state, and they are open 24 hours, 365 days a year. This must be true in other states, too. That doesn't mean there will necessarily be a lot of lights and fanfare at these joints. All big trucks entering the state are inspected for axle weight, cargo weight and cargo securement. Drivers' credentials and tax ID codes are also checked. This is done to protect the safety of the motoring public (an overweight load can create a safety hazard) and to prevent wear and tear on state roads. Truck drivers are fined if they are overweight -- the truck and/or cargo, not the driver -- or if they try to pass through without this inspection. Taj Mahal sings about being a trucker in a hurry to get home in the song "Six Days on the Road":

"Now the ICC's been checkin' on down the line
Honey you know I'm a little overweight and my log book's way behind
But nothin bothers me tonight
I can dodge them scales all right
Six days upon the road and I got to see my baby tonight."

Truckers can also have this inspection done in most major cities to "pre-pass" without having to stop at the highway stations. BTW, if you're ever in Albuquerque, the "Terminal Cafe" (how's that for a forebidding restaurant name?) at the truck stop on Menaul and University has killer green chile stew and makes the best old fashioned chocolate malts.

SDSTAFF Ed replies:

Jill, honey, this is great, but she's not asking why the weigh stations in your state are open, she's asking why the ones in her state are closed. One likely reason is short staffing due to budget cutbacks. In 1992 the auditor general's office in Illinois, where I live, found that weigh stations here (there are currently 32) were open only 25 percent of the time due to staff reductions. At the time the Illinois Department of Transportation employed only 78 truck weight inspectors, down from 130 in 1978. If you've ever driven in Illinois, you know this is one of the classic penny-wise, pound-foolish decisions--the roads here are in terrible shape. Partly that's because of the harsh winters, but overloaded trucks are a big factor. The 1992 auditor's report estimated that overweight trucks caused $50 million of road damage a year, which led to $93 million in vehicle damage. The report suggested keeping the weigh stations open on a random schedule, to discourage truckers from simply timing overweight runs for when the weigh stations were closed.

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