In the USA, a weigh station is a permanent location operated by the states for enforcement of weight regulations for Commercial Motor Vehicles. The weigh station is manned either by a State Trooper or an officer of that states' Commercial Vehicle Enforcement Division. The terminology varies from state to state, but the function is the same. Each weigh station not only checks for compliance with weight statutes but vehicle safety and driver compliance. There are several levels of inspection which may be applied at the discretion of the officer(s) on duty.

Weight inspection
The weight portion of an inspection involves the weighing of the vehicle. Most interstate and US routes have a total allowed weight of 80,000 pounds. This included the weight of tractor, trailer, and cargo. That gross weight is further divided into 3 subsets. Those are as follows:

  • Steer axle- 12,000 pounds if the tires are rated for that weigh. Some states such as Virginia allow up to 20,000 on the 'steers' as long as the tires are rated for that weight.
  • Drive axle(s)- a single drive axle with dual wheels is allowed 20,000 pounds. A double axle configuration (twin screw) is allowed 34,000 pounds.
  • Trailer tandem(s)- as for the drive axles of a power unit, a single trailer axle with dual tires on each side is allowed 20,000 pounds. A double axle trailer with duals is allowed 34,000 pounds.

The total gross weight of 80,000 pounds cannot be exceeded by weight combinations of all axles. Additional axles allow significantly higher weights, but special overweight permits must be obtained to go over the 80,000 pound maximum.

Trailers have many different options to deal with weight distribution. Some have sliding tandems which allow for weight redistribution. Spread axles give each axle the ability to scale 20,000 pounds, but the 80,000 pound maximum still applies.

Truck safety inspection
This inspection involves the physical inspection of the truck to certify that it is safe to operate. This involves checking the following:

  • wipers
  • Horn- both air horn and electric, one must be operational
  • lights
  • required fire extinguisher
  • Required reflective devices to be used in case of a breakdown
  • exhaust system
  • Tires and wheel rims
  • brakes
  • frame and suspension system
  • Air compressor and air storage system

A critical portion of the equipment inspection is the brake system. A large portion of trucks which fail inspection and are placed 'out of service' are due to defective brakes. This can include brakes out of adjustment, cracked brake shoes or drums, oil on brake shoes and drums, leaking wheel seals, etc. An 'out of service' order means the defective part(s) must be repaired/replaced before the vehicle may be operated again.

Driver compliance inspection
The driver is also inspected for compliance of regulations. He must have in his possession and produce upon demand the following:

  • Commercial Driver's License (CDL), issued by the state of residence. Only one CDL allowed. In the past, drivers could get a PO Box in several states and maintain several drivers licenses, but that is now illegal.
  • Driver Physical certification card. An operator of a Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV) must obtain and pass a physical examination every 2 years.
  • Logbook- current to the last change of duty. Driver must have in possession log for current day as well as previous 7 days.
  • Various required permits/authorities for the vehicle he is operating. These vary depending on the type of operation for which he drives. Some common ones are IRP plate/permit, Hazardous Material permits/authorities (both for driver and truck), SSRP-Single State Registration Plan (now in limbo, being replaced by a new system), permits required by individual states (such as New Mexico)

The weigh station is the bane of the truck driver. Looking at the above list gives you an idea of the large number of opportunities to get a ticket, or even worse be placed 'out of service'. An 'out of service' order also reflects upon a motor carrier's Safety Rating. A number of 'out of service' orders will cause a carrier to be 'flagged' for additional enforcement and inspection efforts. A bad inspection history can cost a carrier very high penalties or the loss of operating authority.

The picture is further complicated by roaming inspection units which can stop a truck for a roadside inspection at any time. Though not quite the same as the weigh station, the roaming unit can and does perform every phase of inspection the permanent location performs.

The weigh station has its own nickname in trucker language. We call it the chicken coop and we have to pull in to get our chickens weighed. Back in the day it was common to run around the coops if overweight. That involved running the skinny roads to avoid inspection. It was a kind of cat-and-mouse game truckers played with the cops. Sometimes you'd win, sometimes you'd lose. The fines weren't exorbitant, so if you got caught, you could laugh it off, mail in a money order to pay the ticket, and live to play another day.

Fines for running around the coops have, along with everything else, escalated dramatically. It isn't a game any more, unless it's a money game. It simply doesn't pay to play that game anymore. One fine can wipe out months of profit. Running the skinny road can get you a night in the Graybar Hotel and get your rig and load impounded. Have you had to have your car towed recently? If so, did you think the fee was reasonable? Imagine what it costs to have a big rig towed in to the impound lot. The bill starts in the hundreds of dollars to obtain its release.

Truckers hate the scales, pure and simple. That being said, they perform a valuable service. Were it not for the danger of getting a ticket or worse, trucks would be on the highway in horrible mechanical condition. Drivers would be whatever a company could scrape up and sit in the seat. Trucks would literally be driven by the scum of the earth, the cheapest labor available to do the job, qualifications be damned. Sometimes it seems that way already, but sans the police and the weigh station, it'd be unbelievably worse.

I sure hope the coops are closed between where I am tonight and home, because I'm headed thataway!