WSP hopes high-tech brake-screening system will save lives

SEATTLE -- The Washington State Patrol has a lofty goal of ending traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030, and this week it did something to get one step closer to that goal.

WSP unveiled an infrared screening system that can detect every big rig with brake problems that runs through a state weigh station.

Trucks can lose their brakes without warning, and that can lead to deadly consequences.

"I've been to several fatal collisions where brakes were the major cause of the collision," said WSP commercial vehicle enforcement officer Bill Balcom.

Last year in one week more than 21,000 vehicles throughout the nation were inspected, and one in seven had bad brakes.

Leroy Trussell has been trucking since the 70s and has seen his fair share of scary incidents.

"I've dropped off a hill and had trucks smoke their brakes behind me and I've had to let them run into the back end of me to slow them down," he said.

Trussell and other truckers worry that their own or their fellow truckers could lose their brakes on a hill, sending 42,000 pounds careening out of control.

Trussell has never lost his brakes, but he and longtime trucker Allan Davis recently got a surprise when they unknowingly drove over a WSP camera at a weigh station that showed a problem.

"We're starting to use infrared technology to identity bad brakes on trucks," Balcom said. "What it does is searches for heat on a working brake."

As a truck runs over the underground camera, the yellow and red indicates heat -- or a working brake -- but the left side of the camera reveals a cold brake. It's black, and no thermal image can be detected, which means its a bad brake.

Both Trussell and Davis show cold brakes.

"How in the name of God did he know I got a brake out of adjustment sitting in the scale house?" Davis said.

Vic Bagnall from the Department of Transportation designed the fully-automated system.

"If we can get one truck off the road that might kill somebody, I'm thrilled," he said.

When a truck with bad brakes goes by, a red bar on the officer's monitor goes on and shows its location.

"All they have to do is look up and say, 'Okay, there's a truck with a bad brake,' " Bagnall said.

Those trucks are then inspected and not allowed back on the road until the brakes are fixed.

"They did me a good favor," Trussell said. "I'd rather have brakes on my tractor than not have anything at all when I put my foot on the brake."

WSP officials say a federal grant is paying for the new system, including the installation of cameras and equipment at the state's 11 other weigh stations.

State patrol in Georgia and the US Department of Transportation have already been here to check out Washington's new system.