More research must be done by the U.S. Department of Transportation before regulations are relaxed on truck size and weight limits, a scientific advisory panel said Monday.
The interim report, issued by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, is examining an industry request to allow trucks to surpass the current federal 80,000-pound weight limit.
Last year, a coalition of more than 80 agricultural groups and shippers proposed a 15-year pilot program to increase the vehicle weight limit to 91,000 pounds on federal interstate highways. Haulers of food and agricultural commodities see heavier loads as a cost savings measure.
But some truckers and state highway departments worry that the increased weight would be a safety risk and increase wear on an already stressed road system.
The Department of Transportation asked the panel, which includes the Transportation Research Board, to review the issue last September. The committee includes academics, policy analysts, social scientists and engineers.
The report identified 45 areas the panel needs to examine before making a recommendation, said James Winebrake, the committee chairman and dean of the College of Liberal Arts at the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, N.Y.
They include how increasing truck weight will affect traffic safety, whether the nation’s bridges can handle longer and heavier trucks and the expected impact on roads and pavement. Other issues still to be examined include how a higher weight limit would be enforced and how trucks and trailers must change physically to carry extra weight.
The committee will meet again in late May and expects to issue a final report by the end of summer or early fall, Winebrake said. But it won’t be a recommendation on whether to move forward with increasing the limit.
“Our task is to frame the details of the research projects and provide an estimate about what the cost may be to do the work,” he said.
The Transportation Department will then have to find the money to research the project.
The report comes nearly two years after a congressionally-mandated study, failed to provide comprehensive answers about the effects of increasing truck size and weight limits. At that time, the DOT called for no changes to current federal policy.
The industry is split on the push for heavier and longer trucks. Shippers are pitted against safety groups who oppose increasing truck weights because of safety concerns. Some truckers are concerned they will have to make significant investments in equipment to haul heavier freight. They fear they won’t get a corresponding increase in pay.
One agricultural group, the Soy Transportation Coalition, has pushed for increasing truck size and weight limits on U.S. federal highways for several years.
The trade group says there’s already data from many states that demonstrates longer and heavier trucks are safe.
“We already have real-world experience on how roads absorb these different weights with different configurations,” Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soy Transportation Coalition, told Trucks.com.
Several states have grandfathered rights allowing truckers to legally operate above 80,000 pounds on interstate highways, dating back to the establishment of federal weight limits in 1956. Additionally, 31 states allow trucks over 80,000 pounds on federal interstates under special permits and exemptions or on designated corridors.
“Questions will remain on any complex issue, but this issue can be eliminated significantly with research that’s already been done,” Steenhoek said.
But others say there are problems with increasing the weight limits.
There is insufficient data to determine the effects of increasing truck size and weight limits on public safety, enforcement efforts and infrastructure, said Harry Adler, public affairs manager of the Truck Safety Coalition.
“Unfortunately, the committee appears to discuss pilot programs in other countries, but makes no mention of the differences in levels of safety and requirements in those countries; for example the European Union mandates heavy vehicle speed limiters and automatic emergency braking, both of which reduce crashes and mitigate the severity of crashes” Adler told Trucks.com.
He said regulators need more data to understand the impact of longer and heavier trucks that are more difficult to operate and drive alongside other traffic.
“At a time when truck crashes continue to rise, we hope members of Congress will focus their efforts on proven crash-reduction strategies rather than increasing truck size and weight,” Adler said.