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Dollars & Sense

PrePass: What is it and does it benefit the expediter?

By Lee Kurtzmann
Posted Oct 30th 2002 4:00AM

It's an all too common sight on the highway - a line of trucks that fill the entire entrance ramp of a weigh station and sometimes back up the freeway because the stations aren't shut down fast enough once they become full.

At the same time, drivers are screaming on the CB for the weigh master to shut the down the scales because, "Someone's gonna get rear-ended out here!"

The drivers understandably become aggravated; after all, it's a dangerous scenario and a time-waster as well.

As one trucking executive puts it, its dangerous on both ends of the weight station; tractor-trailers trying to slow down from highway speeds along with other big trucks on the ramp, and then after the scales, accelerating to highway speed and hoping that line of four-wheelers will move over to let the big truck merge.

Some would say that weigh stations are a necessary evil, while others would contend that they exist simply for revenue enhancement and trucker harassment. Regardless of their reasons for existence, the scales are an inconvenience at best and a hazard at worst.

So, what's the alternative?

The alternative is an electronic clearance system, or as HELP, Inc. states: "PrePass is an automatic vehicle identification system that allows participating transponder equipped commercial vehicles to bypass designated weigh stations and port-of-entry facilities across the United States. Cleared vehicles may proceed at highway speed, eliminating the need to stop."

How it all started

In the 1980's, the Federal Highway Administration began testing the concept of electronic screening, or a method of weighing trucks in-motion and eliminating or reducing the number of trucks that would need to enter a weigh station. The first tests occurred on a few selected highways in the Western US and on I-75 in Kentucky.

The research revealed that individual states could not manage the system on a nationwide basis, so in 1993, the Heavy Vehicle Electronic License Plate, Inc. (HELP) group was formed as a non-profit corporation. With venture capitalization in place, the PrePass system was born.

This public-private partnership is a first-of-its-kind in the transportation arena and its board of directors comes from government, trucking associations and companies with the day-to-day operations being handled by the HELP, Inc staff.

The PrePass system is not the only game in town, but so far, it's the largest of the electronic identification systems in the US. According to Chris Oliver, Marketing Manager of PrePass, there are now 215 locations in place with another 44 proposed sites in the "pipeline."

Besides the Oregon-exclusive Green Light Program electronic system, NORPASS is the only other AVI system on a multi-state basis; it's operational in about a dozen of the states.

PrePass has been adopted by about half of the United States, the notable exceptions being in the Northeast and several mid-western and southern states.

How does it work?

To participate in the PrePass system, the owner/operator's company must provide proof of current registration, a satisfactory safety rating, and other credentials required at state inspection facilities.

An online application form (downloadable) is available on the PrePass web site. Many carriers keep a supply of forms on hand as well. When the approval process is complete, a transponder is mailed to the owner/driver that is mounted on the inside of the windshield.

From that point on, it's a hands off situation for the driver:

1. As a truck approaches the weigh station, it is electronically identified and weighed.

2. A PrePass computer located in the weigh station verifies truck credentials.

3. A green light and audible signal from the transponder in the truck give the go-ahead to bypass the weigh station. If weight or credentials cannot be verified, the driver is signaled to pull into the weigh station.

4. Compliance sensors provide validation of bypass by PrePass-equipped trucks. The computer determines whether further inspection or verification of credentials is required. At the same time, weigh-in-motion (WIM) scales placed before the weigh stations allow trucks that are within weight limits to proceed. If everything on credentials and weight checks out, the driver gets a green light in the cab.

PrePass says that the signal on a transponder will stay on for 30 seconds but will stay in memory for 15 minutes. If the driver is pulled over within those 15 minutes and a police officer wants to know his last signal, he can push the "test" button and the last signal will appear. The signal on a wired device will stay on for 15 minutes and stay in memory until the driver receives another light.

HELP provides states with computer hardware, transponder readers and database and technical support at no cost. HELP Inc. also verifies the carrier's credential information on a quarterly basis. To recover its costs, the company charges carriers 99 cents each time a PrePass-equipped truck gets the green light, up to $3.96 per day. A green light incurs a charge only if the weigh station is open.

Big Brother?

Since the introduction of this technology, professional drivers have expressed concerns about the information collected at the PrePass weigh station being supplied to the government. Specifically, can information regarding a driver's time from PrePass weigh station to another PrePass site be used to determine if a driver is speeding?

PrePass says that it preserves bypass transaction data and all carrier business information with the utmost confidence. Information is used in PrePass only for the purpose of managing the bypass events and is not publicly disclosed. The information is not permanently retained after payment of relevant transaction fees.

Also, the invoice listing the bypass event does not show the time of the event, so this should eliminate any concerns regarding the comparison of the invoice with a driver's log.

Is PrePass beneficial to the expediter?

Besides the safety issues of weigh station ramp avoidance, the PrePass system's primary promotional tool is that of saving time. The Prepass web site even estimates the timesavings for the PrePass user (based on 3 scale stops bypassed in a day) at 7.5% improvement in driving time, daily and weekly.

If there's any segment of trucking for which timesavings is key, it's expediting. If a system like PrePass allows the expediting driver to save 5-15 minutes at a packed scale house or two and help that driver make his ETA, it's worth considering.

Jeff Brown of expedited carrier Panther II, Inc. says, "A few dozen of our contractors are using Prepass. We met with a PrePass representative and we now have a customized form for our contractors. All they do is fill out the form and send it in with their payment."

Brown goes on to say that his contractors like the system: "Feed back has been very positive. If a driver can cut wasted minutes out of waiting on a scale, it's better for us and better for them and better for customers."

Mike Whitaker is one of the contractors with Panther II who is using the PrePass system and he feels its been of benefit: "I've been using the system about 5 weeks now and I feel it saves a lot of time. My bill listed a total of 15 PrePass sites that I went past, 7 of which were open. I like the fact that the billing also gives the weight."

"If I can bypass those scales and keep going, it's worth 99 cents for a green light."

Chris Oliver of PrePass says, "Our system has been well accepted by the expediting community. Some of the companies whose contractors are participating with our program include: Landstar Express America, Con-Way NOW, Tri-State Expedited Service, Inc. and FedEx Custom Critical.

"We took a look at the 50 largest weigh stations and asked what's the time spent at a location; the average is around 10 to 12 minutes of waiting. In a day's driving time, a driver can sometimes save 40-60 minutes in that day by bypassing scales."

Oliver continues, "Also, when one considers the fact that a truck has to slow from highway speeds to dead slow and then get back up to cruising speed every time through the weigh station, that's a savings on equipment."

John Mueller is Driver Services and Safety Director of Seagate Transportation, a truckload carrier from Perrysburg, OH. Mueller gives high marks to the PrePass program: "The system is great, our owner/operators and company drivers average 3-5 green lights a month per truck."

"I wish more states would adopt the PrePass system. When an owner/operator signs on with Seagate and wants a PrePass, we get him set up with paperwork and we usually have a transponder to give him."

"There is a downside though," says Mueller. "I've heard that some companies have problems in different states because there is not a standard rating number for all the states. This means that sometimes the trucks can't use the bypass system in those different states."

Chris Oliver says, "In truckload trucking we have found that companies with owner/operator fleets of 25 trucks or fewer are very receptive to the PrePass system; we add 300-400 new companies every month."

Ben and Melanie Easters are independent contractors with Panther II, Inc. Melanie says that they are still new to the system, but "So far we like it. We've only been using it for a few weeks but it has definitely saved us some time. The statement is very detailed and it tells us what scales we bypassed."

"It looks like a good deal. We've gotten a red light at only one weigh station so far."

Jeff Jensen contributed to this article

Web Information
PrePass Homepage

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