WE ALL NEED to be careful what we ask for. Even those in Congress sometimes get surprised.
Our lawmakers last year got what they requested — the results of a detailed study on truck size and weight regulations. However, the politically neutral organization of scientists that conducted the study have dropped a political hot potato in the lap of Congress.
In legislation passed in 1998, Congress asked the Transportation Research Board (TRB) to conduct a study of truck size and weight regulations on federally funded highways and to recommend “any revisions to law and regulations that the board determines appropriate.”
TRB did just that. The board, part of the National Academy of Sciences, spent the past few years researching size and weight issues and analyzing the results. The culmination of the project was the publication of Special Report 267, “Regulation of Weights, Lengths, and Widths of Commercial Vehicles,” about a year ago.
The recommendation with perhaps the most potential effect on trailer manufacturers is this:
“The states should be allowed to issue permits for operation, on any road where the use of such vehicles is now prevented by federal law, of:
Six-axle tractor-semitrailers with maximum weight of 90,000 pounds.
Double-trailer configurations with each trailer up to 33 feet long; seven, eight, or nine axles; and a weight limit governed by the present federal bridge formula.”
In making its recommendation for more liberalized truck size and weight regulations, TRB recognized the importance of an efficient transportation system. The board pointed out that trucking accounts for 80% of the total amount of money spent on freight transportation in the United States. As such, the report says, regulations have significant impact on the United States economy.
The impact those regulations has today is negative. The report calls current federal standards “the outcome of a series of historical accidents” and says that today's regulations are “poorly suited to the demands of international commerce; their effectiveness is being eroded by ever-expanding numbers and types of special exemptions, generally granted without evaluation of consequences.”
According to the report, quirks in size and weight regulations are causing some trucks to use secondary roads instead of Interstate highways. The effect: higher costs and degradation of highway safety.
The TRB is particularly critical of the rigidity of current regulations, suggesting that they stifle public- and private-sector innovations that have the potential to make truck transportation more efficient and reduce wear and tear on our highway infrastructure.
Criteria for changing truck size and weight regulations should be:
Do the proposed changes save lives? Whatever changes are made to truck size and weight regulations should be implemented with public safety in mind. This includes fixing the current system so that we can move commercial trucks back onto the safest highways available — Interstates — to minimize the stoplights and vehicle cross traffic that drivers must negotiate.
Do the proposed changes save highways? No one wins when overweight vehicles shorten the lifespan of our highways and bridges. If any changes are made to truck size and weight regulations, they should not accelerate wear and tear on this infrastructure.
Do the proposed changes save money? Will they enable the economy to get goods faster, cheaper, more efficiently? Do the benefits outweigh the costs?
The Truck Trailer Manufacturers Association addressed the size and weight issue during its recent convention (see report, page 45). Joe Morris with TRB discussed the research and its findings. Jim March with the Federal Highway Administration identified the players on both sides of the issue. Darrin Roth with the American Trucking Associations relayed the perspective of motor carriers.
Truck size and weight regulations are not simply matters that affect motor carriers. Given the volume of goods that are brought to market via trucks and trailers, consumers have a vested interest in getting freight delivered as efficiently as possible.
But for groups such as the railroads, increasing truck size and weight is a call to arms. Expect an emotional battle when the issue comes before Congress in the near future. Cries of “killer trucks” undoubtedly will be heard. This mantra in the past has won the hearts of many people whose vehicles are dwarfed by commercial trucks. But while the difference in size and weight is obvious, few people sense the hidden tax we all pay for trucking inefficiency.
An objective group of scientists and engineers has given Congress what it asked for. But the group did not give Congress what it wanted to hear. Will Congress give America what we need?
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