For Steve and Jeanette House, it was a simple run through a weigh station, but made during an urgent mission.
The 30-year trucking veteran and his wife were in their Kenworth, traveling from their home in Springdale, WA, and headed to Michigan, to provide support to a sick relative, diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Even though Jeanette has a CDL, she doesn’t normally run with Steve. However, because of the situation, they chose to team-drive the run.
The couple was headed westbound on I-94 when they came up to the Red River Scale just inside Minnesota. They took their turn in line with the other trucks and moved forward.
And that is when it happened.
“I just rolled up there, and there was a stop sign, stopped, and then I took off,” Steve said.
Shortly after he started moving again, a man came running up to the rig.
“He jumped up on my truck and just started screaming at me,” Steve said. “He says, didn’t you see that stop sign? And I said, yeah, I stopped.”
Enforcement officers asked Steve to come into the scale house. They brought him into a small, windowless room. Jeanette was told she could not join him, that the officers were going to take Steve “into the back room and talk to him for a while.”
Several people from the weight station joined Steve in the room, but did not identify themselves at that time. They grabbed Steve’s logbook, they sat him down and said they just wanted to ask some questions … a survey.
“I really didn’t know what was going on and they never did say what they were doing,” he said.
The scale house official said “this isn’t going to take long, and it’s probably going to be no tickets.”
However, for the next 45 minutes, they questioned Steve about everything from his neck size to how often he goes to the bathroom.
And at the end, they told him that even though he was just off his 10-hours rest, even though he felt fine and alert, even though his logbook showed plenty of hours to drive, they had determined he was fatigued, and put him out of service.
And if his hand put the key in the ignition any time in the next 10 hours, they said, he would face a 10,000 fine … and possibly jail time.
Steve House had become a victim of the Minnesota Fatigue Questionnaire, a project promoted by an officer of a State Patrol Trooper, a list of apparently arbitrary questions that officers say determine whether a trucker is fatigued.
The incident took place some time ago – back in May of 2008. And when Steve and Jeanette first pulled into the Red River Weight Station on westbound I-94, it was obvious something unusual was happening.
“When we drove up in that scale, I mean, you would have thought you were at a checkpoint in a communist country,” Jeanette House said. “There were so many – I don’t know if they were DOT cars, or State Patrol cars. It was just crazy how many were around there.”
The weigh station was running two lanes of trucks, so Steve guided the Kenworth and trailer into the right lane. And most of the trucks were rolling through at a steady pace.
The Houses stopped at the sign, and then Steve began to feather up the truck out of the weigh station.
That’s when one of the workers running the station ran up to the truck and asked Steve and Jeanette to come into the scale house. However, Jeanette didn’t get far.
“My wife kind of went in with me,” Steve said. The trucker said the weigh station official told Jeanette “you stay out here, we’re going to take him back in this back room and we’re going to be talking to him for a while.”
And talk they did.
The first question: What size shirt do you wear? Not surprisingly, Steve wondered what that had to do with his trucking operation. And on top of it, as a trucker who rarely wears a dress shirt, he simply didn’t know his neck size … and neither did his wife when one of the officers poked his head out in the hall and asked her.
Next, they wanted to know how often Steve gets up in the night to go to the bathroom. Again, he was unsure, and said he guessed it was a “few times.”
The questioning went on from there.
“They just kept on going and asking me a bunch of goofy questions, really didn’t make no sense to me,” he said. “They had never really told me what they were doing.
“This went on probably for about 45 minutes, and finally, I asked them, what is this all about here? You know, I’d like to know what’s going on.”
In fact, what was happening was far from an innocent questioning. The officers in the room – who had yet to identify themselves as officers – were administering what’s called the Fatigued Driving Evaluation Checklist.
The checklist was developed by Capt. Ken Urquhart, an officer with the Minnesota State Patrol. It’s a list of factors listed in categories, organized like a checklist.
For each item on the checklist, the driver gets a checkmark. At a certain number or combination of checkmarks, the officer at the roadside concludes the trucker is too fatigued to drive – even if that driver says he is rested, even if his logbook is in order and shows he has taken his 10 hours off.
It’s the questions themselves that raise the most controversy. The list in Minnesota is broken down into six categories: overall truck condition, condition of sleeper, condition of cab, driving behaviors, driver medical condition, driver physical condition.
Under condition of sleeper, for example, the list includes possible checkmarks if you have a TV in your sleeper, if you have clothing in your sleeper, if you have a video game system, or reading material, such as books, magazines or newspapers.
And while having a spare set of clothes in the sleeper may get you a checkmark, under driver physical condition, you’ll also likely get a checkmark if you’re unshaven, dirty or disheveled, have dirty clothing.
You can get a checkmark for being irritable. You can also get a checkmark for being too cooperative.
If you’re eyes are watery, teary or bloodshot, you can get a checkmark, but if it’s because of allergies, you’ll get a checkmark for using over the counter medication to treat it. And another checkmark for the allergy itself.
You’ll get a checkmark if you have sleep apnea. On the other hand, you’ll get a checkmark if you have your CPAP with you to treat it.
You’ll get a checkmark for debris in the cab, for an overflowing wastebasket, for food or food wrappers in the cab, for debris or tools on the sleeper mattress, or for empty soda bottles.
On the other hand, if your sleeper looks unused, that will get you a checkmark too. And don’t forget the outside of the truck – the checklist includes a strike for a dirty exterior.
After the checklist questioning, Steve House was put out of service. Using the questionnaire, the officers said he was too fatigued, and too dangerous, to drive – even though he had just come off 10 hours rest; even though he has a 30-year, 4 and a half million mile plus safe driving record; and even though the officers told him the survey would involve no tickets.
When Steve brought those facts up, the response was pretty straightforward. The officer told him “that don’t mean anything.”
“He says, we’ve come to the conclusion that you’re not fit to drive,” Steve said. “I just woke up, and I say, I know I’m not tired,”
According to Steve House, the officer responded, “Well, according to what we’re saying here, you’re not fit to drive, and we’re putting you out of service for 10 hours.”
Steve said the officer went on to explain that the state personnel in the scale house “were trained and were the professionals,” and therefore were able to use the test to determine that he was fatigued.
However, that’s not an opinion that everyone shares.
In fact, the course that trains roadside enforcement personnel to use the questionnaire and to evaluate fatigue is 3 hours long.
Tom Weakley of the OOIDA Foundation is a former trucker, a researcher and someone who’s extensive reviewed available science on fatigue and its application to trucking. He said 3 hours is hardly enough to arrive at what is, essentially, a medical diagnosis.
“In one of my past lives, I was also an EMT, and you know, it took me weeks and weeks of weeks of training,” Weakley said.
“One of the things they drill into your head is you don’t diagnose things. You take the factors that are there and you report those to a doctor or a medical facility or whatever it happens to be, and you treat what the illness that you can see,” he added. “A guy’s bleeding; obviously, you try to stop the bleeding. But other than that, you don’t interpret what all of that means.”
Weakley isn’t alone in that opinion.
Dr. John McElligott of the Professional Drivers Medical Depot runs an organization that specializes in medical care for truckers. Since it was founded, PDMD has treated more than 20,000 professional drivers.
Not surprisingly, Dr. McElligott has a good sense of what illnesses and conditions truckers face, and what it takes to diagnose them. And he says a 3-hour course is not sufficient to enable someone to make an accurate diagnosis of fatigue.
“I’m sure you’ll find some ivory tower doctor that thinks that, but I take care of truckers every day, and I couldn’t do that,” he said. “I know how they live; some of them literally live in their trucks for months and months at a time, and then when they do get home, they clean it up.
“When they’re doing good and they can afford a hundred dollar truck wash, they get it done,” McElligott added. “They all like to look sharp. So I just don’t see a basis for that.
“I don’t know who came up with that list, and as far as I’m concerned, it’s just another bit of harassment.”
However, the law-enforcement officers involved in the fatigued driving evaluation checklist say it is. And they want the use of the checklist spread beyond Minnesota.
They’ve had some success. Indiana has started to use the questionnaire. And according to OOIDA Regulatory Affairs Specialist Joe Rajkovacz, the checklist’s promoters have tried, several times, to make it a national standard.
“Capt. Urquhart with the Minnesota State Patrol has been apparently trying to build his bones within his by making this a priority,” he said. “He’s actually previous pushed at CVSA for his particular program to be included in the out-of-service criteria that’s used in the North American Standards for roadside inspection.”
Tom Weakley says he’s had the same experience.
“He tried to do this, brought it up to CVSA, wanting to include this in the out-of-service two or three years ago, I believe,” Weakley said. “Credit to CVSA in my opinion; they voted down overwhelmingly to even consider putting this in the out-of-service criteria, but it’s still hanging on.”
Despite the rejections at the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, Minnesota and Indiana officials remain steadfast in their support of the list.
Editor’s Note: If you have been subject to the checklist in either Minnesota or Indiana, you’re encouraged to contact OOIDA’s compliance department at 1-800-444-5791.