ONCE MORE, commercial vehicle sizes and weights are under the spotlight. It's one of those perennial topics that get people all worked up, but little or nothing actually changes. This round could go the same way, but that might not be the best course of action.
Shippers and a handful of carriers are the chief advocates of increased weights and sizes. Opposition comes from a broad group, including nine state trucking associations, rail-backed interest groups such as the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks (CABT), and some influential members of Congress. The American Trucking Associations has withheld comment because it has members on both sides of the issue.
The current discussion was prompted by a report to Congress by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). FHWA lays out five scenarios for changes in truck sizes and weights but draws no conclusions and makes no recommendations.
- US truck dimensions would be harmonized with those in Canada and Mexico in accordance with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Included would be a six-axle tractor-trailer with a gross combination weight of 97,000 pounds.
- Longer combination vehicles - triple 33-ft trailers to 132,000 pounds, twin 53-ft trailers to 148,000 pounds, or a 53-ft trailer paired with a 28.5-ft pup trailer to 120,000 pounds - would be able to operate nationwide on designated, but limited, routes.
- Triple-trailer combinations would be allowed on a 65,000-mile national highway network.
- FHWA would abolish grandfathered laws under which states allow trucks that exceed the 80,000-lb federal limit. Permits for nondivisible loads would continue. States with lower weight limits for noninterstate portions of the national truck network would have to meet the federal standard.
- Current federal regulations would be mandated, and anything longer than 48 feet would be prohibited.
The chief trucking industry argument against increased capacity is that shippers want it for free or even at a lower rate. It's a valid argument, because that's what shippers have done in the past.
Railroads and their supporters are almost rabid in their opposition to increased truck sizes and weights because they know it will result in a further erosion of their freight base. While railroads continue to dominate in the long-distance transport of bulk cargoes, such as plastic pellets, other freight has been lost because the trucking industry provides consistently better service.
Other opponents, including a number of congressmen, cite safety and the impact on existing highways as the primary reasons for their opposition to weight and size increases. Groups such as Citizens for Reliable and Safe Highways (CRASH) automatically argue that bigger trucks mean bigger accidents.
However, safety is also a chief reason for increasing weights, if not sizes. Over the years, Modern Bulk Transporter has published a number of reports that show how a rig like the six-axle, 97,000-lb combination in the FHWA study would be a safer vehicle. Roll stability would be much better.
In addition, the tank truck industry is facing a number of safety motivated challenges that could significantly increase tractor-trailer tare weight. Higher tare weight means lost productivity if it can't be offset by increased GCW. Some of the weight-adding rules on the horizon include a ban on wetlines and requirements for fall and side underride protection and increased rollover protection.
The whole hours-of-service issue still hangs over the industry. Even if the next round of rulemaking is more favorable to the trucking industry, driving hours will be reduced. The industry still will face driver shortages, but the impact can be minimized.
Larger vehicles will help offset the lost driver productivity. Fewer trucks would be needed to haul the same amount of cargo. Trucking productivity would increase by 21%, according to the National Private Truck Council.
Finally, there's the NAFTA aspect. Size and weight uniformity between Canada, Mexico, and the United States would bring widespread benefits. In November 2000, a NAFTA panel unanimously rejected a US law that holds Mexican trucks at the US-Mexico border. There will come a day when truck fleets can operate more or less freely throughout North America. Uniform sizes and weights will help level the playing field for everyone, and 97,000 pounds seems to be the right number.
When all of the facts are added up, the trucking industry has some compelling reasons to pursue higher sizes and weights. However, the industry must stand united to ensure that the benefits are not given away as a free gift to shippers. That would be total foolishness.