Inspectors to target trucks
Fatal accident in Richland in April prompts creation of spot-check enforcement teams

Thursday, September 21, 2006
By Len Barcousky, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Prompted by a traffic accident that killed a father and two of his triplets, more than three dozen police officers will begin taking truck inspections to where the vehicles are in the northern suburbs.

Starting in the next week or so, roving enforcement teams will spot-check commercial vehicles for violations, concentrating on tractor-trailers, large trucks and towing vehicles.

The impetus for creating the teams was an April 13 accident on Route 8 in Richland in which an industrial wood-chipper broke loose from a truck and struck a vehicle, killing Spencer Morrison, 37, of Cranberry, and two of his 4-year-old children, Alaina and Garret.

Police say the wood-chipper was not properly secured to the pickup truck. The driver of the truck, Bradley Demetris, of Pine, faces trial on charges of homicide by vehicle and involuntary manslaughter.

"That accident opened a lot of people's eyes to what can happen when safety is overlooked," said Officer Regis Welsh III, a five-year veteran of the Northern Regional Police Department, which serves Pine, Marshall, Bradford Woods and Richland.

After the accident, Allegheny County District Attorney Stephen A. Zappala Jr. proposed a program to train roving vehicle-inspection teams to concentrate on truck safety in the same way that a DUI task force concentrates on identifying drivers who are under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

The county's northern suburbs were chosen as the initial location for the truck-safety effort.

"All the growth in the North Hills means more traffic," said Deputy District Attorney Tom Swan, who is coordinating the program for Mr. Zappala's office. "Lawn-care companies have to haul around their equipment. We want to make sure they are doing it safely."

Overloaded vehicles can create additional, unexpected hazards on the busy, hilly and twisting roads that crisscross the region, said police Chief T. Robert Amann, who heads the Northern Regional Police Department.

An assistant district attorney and 39 officers from 13 departments have completed at least eight hours of training on how to spot dangerous situations and code violations.

They will look for a variety of things, Officer Welsh said: Does the truck have a valid inspection sticker? Is there a safety pin in the trailer hitch? Are the chains between the truck and the equipment being hauled in place and not twisted?

The roving patrols will be able to bring equipment such as portable truck scales to temporary inspection sites, but they'll also bring their skills.

"Just as important are their eyes and their training to spot violations," Chief Amann said.

Daylong training sessions in McCandless, Pine and Ross drew officers from Fox Chapel, Hampton, Indiana Township, McCandless, O'Hara, Ohio Township, Reserve, Ross, Shaler, West Deer, West View, Etna and Northern Regional departments.

The municipalities taking part in the initial effort are part of the North Hills Council of Governments. Future inspection programs in other areas of Allegheny County are likely to be organized according to COG membership, Mr. Swan said.

Two task force officers, Northern Regional's Timothy Spontak and West Deer's Frank Huffman, have received extra training to become certified to do federal Motor Carrier Safety Assistance Program inspections.

Police are scheduled to get additional truck-safety training in the spring, Mr. Swan said.

Participating police departments are not interested in setting up the equivalent of a revenue-generating speed trap for trucks, Chief Amann said. He said he would be happy if roving enforcement teams found no violations.

"A good enforcement day will be one where we see all towing vehicles hooked up correctly," he said, "when we have educated all drivers on the dangers of overloading their trucks."