Answer Man

Hey Smokey, why are those big trucks ignoring the weigh stations?

Q: The other day when passing the truck weigh station on I-55, I watched several trucks pulling off the highway to weigh while others just zoomed on past. Is the budget crisis precluding the state from enforcing its road weight limit laws, thereby allowing many truckers to snub their noses at them?

K.S., of Collinsville

A: Nope, those drivers can keep on truckin’ legally because their rigs are equipped with a modern electronic system that keeps tabs on them even while they’re smokin’ down the interstate.

It’s called Automatic Vehicular Identification — or AVI for short. In fact, the next time you’re up that way, look for a road sign about a couple of miles from the weigh station that says something like “A.V.I. Trucks Use Right Lane.” I spotted one on eastbound I-64 just before the Green Mount Road exit. In simple terms, this is generally how it works:

Instead of forcing all drivers to waste precious minutes pulling off the road and having their trucks examined while stopped, many states have adopted electronic bypass systems, such as PrePass, NORPASS and Drivewyze.

Once a trucker or trucking company signs up, each truck is fitted with a transponder or smartphone that has a unique identification linked to one particular truck. During the registration process, information is entered on the carrier’s name, unit number and the truck’s empty weight, which is then linked to the transponder. The system also maintains a safety and compliance record on each vehicle as well.

In addition to the AVI sign, you may also have noticed a thin boom extending over the roadway ending in a box that looks as if it might be a camera. But instead of taking a picture, this contraption contains an electronic “reader” that takes the signal from the truck’s transponder and relays it to the equipment inside the weigh station. Located about a mile before the station, this boom will read the information from the transponder and also check the safety and compliance record on the database. Equally important, there are weight-detecting devices in the roadway itself.

All of this is displayed on the weigh master’s video screen, including the vehicle’s speed. A computer can automatically determine whether officials can wave at the driver as he rolls by or whether they should pull him in. PrePass, for example, says it correctly identifies 99.99 percent of participating trucks and can make a final yea-or-nay decision in 1 second.

This decision is transmitted to the driver through another boom about a half-mile from the station. If nothing seems amiss, a green light will flash on the transponder. Drivers getting a red light must pull into the station for further examination. The most common reason for a red light, of course, is too much weight — although a certain percentage of at-random stops are made just to maintain system integrity. Each time a truck is pulled in, a driver’s compliance is noted, which may affect how often his or the company’s trucks will be pulled over in the future. If allowed to zoom past, the green light will flash for several minutes to confirm the truck’s bypass status to any nearby Smokeys while the driver can continue to hit the road, Jack, without further hassle.

Good sign

In answering a recent column about an old Belleville movie house in the 200 block of West Main, I admitted to being a bit puzzled over why a relatively new sign on the building says Washington Theatre rather than Illinois Theatre, as it was known when it closed in 1955. Leave it to my good friend and ace historian Bob Brunkow to clear up the mystery.

“To honor the theater, the Belleville Historical Society installed a plaque on the building that brings the history of the site down to the present,” Brunkow told me. “It is one of eleven plaques from the 200 block of East Main to the 200 block of West Main that the society installed beginning during Belleville’s bicentennial. They were to highlight commercial architecture and the people of vision and ability who built the town.”

Don’t worry, no tax dollars were spent.

“The hefty price of the plaques is borne by the building owners, in this case, Precision Practice Management, which is responsible for the stunning theater restoration.”

This also gives me a chance to drop in a plug: If you appreciate the work the Belleville Historical Society does, be sure to assemble a table and sign up for the group’s annual trivia night April 1 at St. Luke’s Parish Hall at 226 N. Church St. It’s just $10 a person for tables of eight, and your friendly, neighborhood Answer Man will be the emcee. We’ll do our best to keep you from feeling like an April Fool, so call 409-1575 or 531-7753 for a reservation.

Today’s trivia

According to legend, what word did the world’s first neon sign spell out — and where was it displayed?

Answer to Friday’s trivia: Those who sew up a storm probably think whoever invented the sewing machine was a saint. Well, he was — Thomas Saint, to be exact. In 1790, the English cabinetmaker patented a machine designed to sew leather and canvas. According to drawings found in 1873, it used only a single thread and formed a chain stitch according to the Museum of American Heritage. Instead of a needle, an awl was was employed to pierce a hole through the material being sewed. Another mechanism placed the thread over the hole and then a needlelike rod with a forked point carried the thread through the underside of the piece, where a hook caught the thread and moved it forward for the next stitch. When the cycle was repeated, a second loop was formed the underside of the cloth with the first loop, thus forming the chain and locking the stitch. Saint, however, never marketed the cumbersome machine, leaving that to French tailor Bathelemy Tinonnier, who came up with a more practical device in 1830.

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer