The Heavyweight Truck Debate

July 09, 2015 by Elisabeth Greenbaum Kasson

The trucking industry has been at odds with federal, state, and watchdog groups over what it perceives as a need for increased weight and size limits on freight carriers. The debate is fractious, with the industry claiming that heavier vehicles are safe, cost effective, and fuel efficient, while opponents cite safety concerns and the cost of wear and tear on roadways.

In May 2015, major freight carriers brought the debate to the floor of Congress. The transportation spending bill included allowances for greater truck size and weight and blocked a variety of safety measures that had been opposed by the industry.

Trucking’s victory was short lived. The bill didn’t pass as a whole and there were caveats in regard to bigger-capacity carriers, not the least of which was the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) required study on the effect of huge trucks on road safety.

The Coalition for Transportation Productivity (CTP), an industry-friendly group, called on DOT to take a closer look at their own recently released data. CTP parsed few differences between larger and smaller trucks. DOT read the analysis differently and responded, “The Department finds that the current data limitations are so profound that no changes in the relevant laws and regulations should be considered until these data limitations are overcome.”

If industry-friendly federal regulation has, for the time being, been shelved, there’s still room for conversation on the state level, albeit a noisy and often confusing conversation.

18343366 _Truck with Oversize Load Sign B-1 Bomber I-5 Oregon

Nearly every state in the U.S. has done a study of the effect of overweight trucks on their infrastructure — and the picture isn’t pretty. But everything from the cost of manning weigh stations and making repairs to a lack of political will and industry pressure has left regulation by the wayside.

According to a government study, one 40-ton truck does as much damage to the road as 9,600 cars. But while the weight limit for nearly all interstate highways is 40 tons, state permits frequently allow vehicles to exceed that amount. Texas allows trucks to go over the limit by two tons, and it’s sometimes as much as 85 tons in Nevada. Other states often grant one-time permits allowing trucks to run way off the weight charts.

All states charge fees for overweight-load permits, and fines if a truck is unpermitted. In theory, these monies are supposed to offset the damage done to infrastructure, but in reality, few trucks get weighed and no states charge fees high enough to impact repair costs.

Ultimately, safety becomes the real bugaboo. In interviews with The Associated Press, experts warned that trucks allowed to exceed the usual weight limits can weaken steel and concrete. This issue is so serious that investigators have said it may have contributed to the 2007 Minneapolis bridge disaster that killed 13 people and the 2000 Hoan bridge collapse in Milwaukee.

Collisions present another dilemma. After years of declining accident rates, fatal mishaps are increasing. Since 2009, the number of deadly large-truck crashes has risen steadily each year.

Many transportation officials dismiss criticisms as overblown and note there are many factors involved in accidents and road decay. David Osiecki, The American Trucking Associations (ATA) executive vice president, said, “We’re driving more. Generally, if miles go up and more trucks are on the road, there is more exposure.”

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