Truckers can be a wily bunch, loading up trucks with too much cargo, sometimes slipping by weigh stations on side roads, alerting each other over CB radios to "smokeys" on the highways.
But Cpl. James T. Rosso of the Maryland State Police and other troopers are trying a new approach to combat dangerously overweight, overloaded and defective trucks: Attack them in "wolf packs."
Since the project began in January, Rosso and 13 other troopers in the agency's commercial vehicle enforcement division have been patrolling the state's roads in groups of two or three.
"Truckers know how to slip by us," Rosso said. "But this way, we can focus on one area and one problem at a time. They can't just take another road."
The commercial motor vehicle division runs the state's nine weigh stations; 14 of its troopers drive around the state, looking for trucks that violate the law.
In past years, troopers spread themselves over large areas, often patrolling them alone. Rosso often used to split up the three-trooper team among three counties. Now, Rosso deploys his team in one county, focusing on a main road and sometimes stationing cars on alternate routes that truckers might use to avoid being stopped.
The new approach, called "wolf packs" for the way wolves hunt, is working, state police say.
"They are surpassing what the old roving crews were doing," said state police Lt. Walter Smith, who is in charge of the wolf pack squads west of Baltimore.
On a recent afternoon, Rosso and two other troopers patrolled Interstate 95 south of Baltimore, each taking a different section of the highway.
Minutes after the troopers set up, truckers began warning each other by CB radio about the police - especially Rosso's bright blue, unmarked patrol car sitting in the median just south of Route 216 in Howard County.
"There's a plain blue wrapper in the comedian" strip, one driver said in trucker's slang.
"There's a blue smokey, slow your big truck down," another said.
Yet another called Rosso a "blue rat."
Listening in, Rosso just laughed. Most trucks can't avoid traveling on I-95, even if they want to bypass state troopers, Rosso said. With three troopers patrolling the stretch, he said, state police have a much better shot at catching illegal trucks.
Catching an overweight or defective truck can be tough. Rosso has been tracking them for 13 years, trying to divine the signs at 65 mph or sitting in a median strip as the trucks fly by. In seconds, he must notice the "squished down" tires, trucks sputtering up small hills, payloads askew or oversize loads that don't have warning signs.
For every 10 trucks that Rosso weighs, he finds five or six that are overweight. If the truck is more than 5,000 pounds overweight, it cannot continue on its journey and must unload its excess cargo.
Rosso also can prevent a truck from continuing if it has serious safety problems or faulty permits.
Experts say that stopping overweight and faulty trucks can save lives.
Too much weight "exacerbates all the problems in the way the trucks are driven and handled, not the least of which is braking and steering," said Dick Henderson, director of governmental affairs for the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, a nonprofit group focused on improving truck safety.
`Smushed down' tires
Sitting in the median, Rosso quickly spotted a possibly overweight truck: a flatbed piled high with bags of mulch, its tires "smushed down" and its mud flaps nearly touching the concrete.
"That load just looks heavy to me," Rosso said, as he turned on his lights and siren and pulled the truck over at a northbound rest area in Howard County.
Cadet Ronald Menchey, who is Rosso's partner on most days, wasn't so sure. "I don't know," Menchey said. "It's hard to tell."
Rosso and Menchey quickly slid 30-pound scales underneath the truck's tires. Rosso was right - the truck was 3,600 pounds overweight. He wrote the driver a $165 ticket.
That same afternoon, Rosso spotted a milk truck missing a mud flap and pulled the truck over. He met a familiar face: Last week, he pulled over the same driver, Jason W. Simpson, when he was driving a different truck, also missing a mud flap.
"He knows me by my first name," Simpson said, as Rosso checked his rear tail lights.
Milk trucks targeted
Simpson's truck was empty - but Rosso has long been suspicious of milk trucks. He got several tips from drivers a few weeks ago that milk trucks were running overweight, so, deploying his wolf pack, Rosso set up a sting on a recent Saturday. All morning, Rosso and his troopers inspected milk trucks - but not one was overweight.
As he walked back from Simpson's truck, Rosso gripped the driver's most recent load receipt - it showed that he was 6,000 pounds overweight just a few hours earlier. That would have cost the driver's company a $355 fine. "I was 6,000 pounds over, and I was only half full," Simpson said with a smile.
What would Rosso discover during the rest of his inspection?
"My low beams don't work," Simpson confided in a low voice. "If there's something wrong, I'm sure he'll find it."
Rosso's check confirmed that the headlights' low beams didn't work. He ordered Simpson to fix them and gave Simpson a $120 ticket for having two bald tires and ordered him to repair the headlights.
"That thing was 6,000 pounds overweight," Rosso said. "That truck was going down the road weighing 86,000 pounds on two bald tires?"