Pulse – August 2009

If you doubt that the controversy over increasing legal truck weight is muddled, consider these conflicting results:
· A poll from Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety says 66 percent of Americans oppose increased weight limits for trucks.
· A poll from a coalition of shippers and their friends says a majority of Americans supports raising interstate truck weight limits without making trucks larger.
Read the qualifiers on the Coalition for Transportation Productivity poll and you begin to see how it got its slim (51 percent) majority. For example: “if it contributes to safer roads, greater fuel economy and more productive highway transportation.” Here’s where the arguments get complicated.

The CTP-backed legislation (H.R. 1799) would authorize states to allow trucks with a gross weight of up to 97,000 pounds to operate on interstate highways within their state. The 80,000-plus-pound trucks would have to add a sixth axle, with brakes.

Heavier vehicles would pay a fee dedicated to bridge investments in states that authorize their use. Having the extra axle would provide more braking power per pound than today’s 80,000-pound trucks. And the gain in productivity – more freight moved with fewer trucks – also means improvements in pollution and congestion.

The Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, Teamsters and some carriers oppose higher weight, citing safety, infrastructure concerns and cost. OOIDA, among others, has long argued that history shows the expense and hassle of upgrading to longer trailers falls on owner-operators and fleets. What they get from the deal is new fees to cover highway wear and no accompanying profit.

The arguments for increased weight are not without merit, but the issue reminds me of proposals for speed governing. The anti-governing side has valid concerns about having the ability to negotiate unpredictable traffic situations, particularly when only trucks are governed. Still, what can’t be ignored is that higher speeds produce more accidents. And more severe accidents.

Likewise with truck weight. Even granting that a sixth axle yields a little more braking power, it’s still more weight moving at the same high speed. If truck braking were foolproof, there would be no problem, but that’s not the case.

The latest Roadcheck from Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance placed almost 20 percent of trucks and buses out of service. Of those, 52 percent were for brake problems. That means 10 percent of commercial vehicles are running with faulty brakes. When those 10 percent are in critical braking situations, they don’t need to be packing an extra 17,000 pounds. You can’t legislate around the laws of physics.

Popular sentiment likely will dictate no change in weight limit, which could be for the best. There will always be potential gains in productivity, fuel use and environmental quality by going to ever-bigger configurations until the Next Great Thing requires two steel rails to run upon. But at some point the disparity between four-wheelers and commercial trucks becomes unwieldy for safety, whether it involves weight, length or both. Let’s stop before we get there.

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