Stephen Jackson has spent the last five years trying to ignore the dump trucks. He's tried to tune out the screeching brakes, roaring engines and scattered debris in the road. But the nuisance has gotten worse in the last few months as more and more trucks come down Palmer Road near his Fort Washington home.
The problem, Jackson said, is simply too big to ignore.
"The trucks seem to run 24 hours a day. They damaged the left-turn lane, and they created depressions in the road. It was like a tank had been driving up and down the road for a long time," he said. "You would worry that your car would be damaged or that an accident would happen when people tried to avoid the dents."
Hundreds of residents say they have had enough of the dump trucks that travel in the vicinity of Indian Head Highway and Palmer Road. They called Prince George's County police to complain about the trucks cutting off other drivers, spilling their loads onto the roads and tearing ruts into the pavement. Truck traffic seems to have increased since construction began on the new convention center in downtown Washington. Many of the trucks carry debris from the construction site to two privately owned landfills in Fort Washington.
Last week, the police responded. On Friday, they conducted surprise inspections of the dump trucks and began ticketing drivers whose trucks were unsafe. Police issued about 20 citations, with fines ranging from $70 for having loose material falling from the truck to $1,020 for operating a truck in complete disrepair. In some cases, the trucks were put out of service.
Some of the truck drivers said that they were concerned about having unsafe trucks on the roads and that they welcomed the surprise inspections, especially if their employers would pay the fines. Russell Smith, who drives for MAT Trucking, agreed despite being cited by police.
"I think it should be done all the time. I see bad trucks every day, trucks with no brakes or bad tires. I've seen some dangerous stuff," he said. "I'm not going to get mad with the police. They are doing their jobs."
Robert Thompson, of Thompson Trucking in the District, said he didn't mind the inconvenience. His truck passed the inspection.
"It doesn't bother me any. If you do the right thing, you don't have anything to worry about," he said.
Police Cpl. Richard Horn of the traffic safety division estimates that 300 to 400 trucks travel Palmer Road each weekday en route to two private landfills. He said that the volume of truck traffic increased recently because of the construction of the new District convention center and that resident complaints began to increase about the same time.
"We received about 300 complaints in 60 days. Residents complained about the numbers of trucks, the noise and the debris they would leave in the road," Horn said. "We can't do anything about the number of trucks. They are just doing their jobs, and they are dumping their loads at a legal dump. All we can do is make sure they are operating safely."
Horn said that although there have been no major accidents involving the dump trucks, residents have been concerned about the potential danger. Carroll J. Savage, chairman of the nearby Broad Creek Historic District Advisory Committee, wrote a letter to county officials asking for increased law enforcement in the area.
"I think it is only a matter of time before there is a serious accident there. The highway is overburdened as is for all these trucks. Sometimes they are traveling in all lanes so you are trapped in between these big diesel-spewing monsters," he said. "The trucks have a right to go where they need to go, but there needs to be some accommodation for residents who live here."
Denny Taylor, manager of Oxon Hill Rentals, also complained to police about the trucks. He said the drivers have been tearing up the lots of businesses, forcing owners to make costly repairs.
"They were just pulling into our lots, stop and pull into traffic without looking at who is there. They just destroyed the lots. We had to put signs up telling them not to turn in our driveway," he said. "I think the inspections are a good idea. The police have done a good job of trying to monitor the drivers. The community is real happy with their response."
Sgt. David Dennison, who was conducting some of the inspections, said most of the drivers offer little resistance to the inspections.
"Most of these guys don't want to drive an unsafe truck. They don't want to go around with bad brakes or leaky fuel pumps. They don't want to die," he said. "Some of them will come through the inspections and get the citation to force the owner of the truck to make the necessary repairs."
Police said Maryland law requires drivers to inspect their trucks twice daily and to make necessary repairs or have their company repair them. Dennison said most of the violations are simple to remedy if the drivers diligently inspect the trucks.
"A lot of the time, if the driver had just inspected their truck, they could have easily fixed the problem and avoided a citation," Dennison said.
James Parker, a driver who owns six trucks, said many owners do not make needed repairs because they are too costly. He said that in some cases, owners risk having their drivers operate an unsafe truck so they can make enough to pay for the repairs.
"A lot of these guys have to get by doing patch jobs on their trucks until they make the money to go to the shop. If you make $300 a day but have to replace a tire that costs $315, you have to wait until you can make a little money or you are going to end up dying of overhead," he said. "I care about the condition of the trucks out here just as much as anyone. I have a family that travels that road, and I want them to be safe, too."
CAPTION: Cpl. Richard Horn of the Prince George's County police department inspects a dump truck on Palmer Road. Residents had complained about unsafe trucks.