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Cutting some slack on tape usage

THE Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA) is asking jurisdictions to refrain from citing conspicuity violations and issuing citations on cargo tank trailers that fall into this category.

Since June 1, 2001 (effective date of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration's conspicuity rules, 49 CFR/393.13), CVSA has learned that some inspectors are citing violations and issuing citations to motor carriers for not having properly equipped the sides of cargo tank trailers with retroreflective tape.

The regulatory provision in question is this:

“Retroreflective sheeting shall be applied to each side of the trailer or semi-trailer. Each strip of retroreflective sheeting shall be positioned as horizontally as practicable. The centerline for each strip of retroreflective sheeting shall be between 375 mm (15") and 1,525 mm (60") above the road surface when measured with the trailer empty or unladen, or as close as practicable to this area.”

A substantial number of cargo tank trailers have side centerlines considerably higher than 60", in some cases as much as 90". Some inspectors are taking the literal reading in the regulation of 60" in height from the road surface and are issuing citations if the reflective tape exceeds this distance.

The regulation specifies horizontally as practicable and 15" to 60" from the road surface for practical and safety considerations. Within these two parameters other drivers are most likely to see the conspicuity markings when on the road.

Cargo tank trailers need to be treated differently because their geometries are different.

Typical van trailers and semitrailers have flat surfaces, and as such offer more flexibility in placing the conspicuity markings within the parameters the regulation requires. In contrast, cargo tank trailers have concave surfaces, and as such have limitations on where conspicuity tape can be installed in optimal locations so it can be seen by other drivers.

Provision's Importance

CVSA's opinion is that the “practicable” terminology in this regulatory provision offers flexibility in those circumstances where trailers and semitrailers are not able to meet both of these requirements. The provision of “horizontally practicable” is important on cargo tank trailers for four reasons:

  • Optimal location for visibility due to the tank shape and geometry.

  • Optimal location to maintain cleanliness and thus increase visibility.

  • Optimal location for installation.

  • Manufacturers of conspicuity material certify its performance in a vertical plane.

Therefore, anything less than at the centerline of the tank trailer can degrade performance.

CVSA's opinion is shared by the National Tank Truck Carriers, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration.

According to a March 2001 NHTSA study; The Effectiveness of Retroreflective Tape on Heavy Trailers, Report #DOT HS 809 222, when all heavy trailers have conspicuity tape it will save an estimated 191 to 350 lives per year, prevent approximately 3,100 to 5,000 injuries per year, and prevent about 7,800 crashes per year, relative to a hypothetical fleet in which none of the trailers have the tape.

Study's Conclusions

The NHTSA study offers this conclusion for crash reductions relative to side and rear impacts into heavy trailers:

  • In dark conditions (combining the subsets of “dark-not-lighted,” “dark-lighted,” “dawn,” and “dusk”), the tape reduces side and rear impacts into heavy trailers by 29%.

  • The tape is by far the most effective in dark-not-lighted conditions, where it reduces side and rear impacts into heavy trailers by 41%.

  • Impacts resulting in fatal or nonfatal injuries to at least one driver are reduced by 44%.

  • The crash reduction is 44% when the driver of the impacting vehicle is 15 to 50 years old, but 20% when that driver is more than 50 years old. A possible explanation of this difference is that older drivers are less able to see, recognize, and/or react to the tape in time to avoid hitting the trailer.

  • The tape is effective in both clear (28%) and rainy/foggy weather conditions (31%).

  • Dirt on the tape significantly diminished its effectiveness in rear impacts. Clean tape reduces rear impacts by 53%; dirty tape reduces rear impacts by 27%.

NHTSA has also issued an interpretation regarding this issue. The interpretation can be accessed on the Internet at

NTTC has requested an interpretation from FMCSA, dated Nov 19, 2001, and FMCSA has issued its response. FMCSA has developed a guidance brochure available for download from its web site and from the CVSA web site.

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