You live in Colorado. In researching a particular trailer, you find that you can get it for $200 cheaper just across the state line in Kansas.
You buy it and return to Colorado, where you receive a surprise during the state-inspection process: The trailer does not have brakes on all axles, which are required in Colorado but not in Kansas. You will have to retrofit the trailer at a cost of $800.
Welcome to the wild world of trailer-brake laws, which vary radically from state to state and have created a frustrating netherworld of entrapping spider webs for those transporting across state lines or who use the same trailer for both personal and commercial business.
“I've done a lot of investigation into what is legal and not legal in certain states, and some of it is rather comical,” says Michael Terry, vice president of the National Association of Trailer Manufacturers (NATM). “Colorado, for example, requires brakes on GVWRs of 3000 pounds and above, but there is an exemption that says a two-horse trailer does not require brakes. I don't know when it was written, but I'm sure that way back when it was written, they envisioned this two-horse, side-by-side, little bumper-hitch trailer.
“Well, the industry has changed dramatically, and it's very possible to have a 20-foot living-quarters, two-horse gooseneck trailer today — and technically, it doesn't have to have brakes because of the way the law is written. A lot of other parts of the Colorado law are good, but there's this old exemption that is hanging on and still in the books.”
State laws create chaos
How radically do the state laws vary?
Six states have no statute on a minimum GVWR for brakes. Twenty-one states require brakes for a GVWR over 3000 lb — which Terry says is “probably a good weight.” Two states require them for over 10,000.
“It's very convoluted and complex,” says Andy Gehman, chairman of NATM's government affairs committee.
Gehman says federal rules were established to govern commercial vehicles, then each state determined its own regulations for regular vehicles. The result was chaos.
“The prime example: You have a general-purpose utility trailer,” Gehman says. “Today, you're using it to haul firewood around your property. Tomorrow, you hop into it and you're the local landscaping guy and you're going over to mow somebody's yard to make some money. Or say you're going to your mother's house on the weekend to do it and take some gear. That's not for commerce.
“It's the same truck, same trailer, and same equipment on the trailer. When you go to your mother's house for the weekend, you would not need brakes on all axles. And the next day, when you do it for commercial work, you would. Now, in my opinion, you either need the brakes to stop the trailer or you don't. It's really a function of weight and braking, not, ‘Are you doing this for money or not for money?’
“A lot of times, we believe the rules on commercial trailers — brakes on all axles 3000 GVW and above — is the right way to go. But there are various states that have a rule on one axle. Well, which axle should that be? What if it's the triaxle? Where would you put them? There are no studies done on that. And there is no real answer. It's just what the manufacturer wants to do.”
Beyond the obvious inconsistencies between states, there is the overarching issue of safety. How dangerous is a trailer without brakes?
“To keep things in perspective, you have to remember that the average half-ton pickup weighs in the neighborhood of 4500 pounds,” Terry says. “If you're pulling another vehicle behind you, where do you need the brakes? Vehicles are rated to stop their weight, plus some load weight — but typically not as much as can be towed.
“I've always been somewhat of the opinion that if you can't pull it, you just need a bigger truck and it's not a big deal. But if you can't stop it, guess what? That could be a school bus pulling out in front of you. Or that could be my daughter or your son out there on the road. So the stopping issue is near and dear to our hearts at NATM, and something we feel is way past due. And if nobody else is going to do anything about it, we feel it's our place.”
NATM, which has been researching this issue for three years through its government affairs committee, is making a push for a standard trailer brake law and has been canvassing other organizations for their opinions on what it would entail and how it should be approached. NATM wants to work with a coalition of trade organizations and axle and brake manufacturers to pursue the best avenue for legislation.
Pursuing the right avenue
Last April, NATM had a roundtable meeting with the National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) in Washington, D.C.
“They're of the opinion, ‘Well, write it up and hand it to us and if it makes sense to us, we'll run it through the system,’ ” Terry says. “We don't know which way to go. Do you hand them a document that works in our industry and because we do have a relationship with them, will it be carried out as we intended, or will we ask for something and then something very different comes out of it?”
NATM also has signed a contract with a government-relations firm that will help navigate every aspect of the process, helping the coalition interact with various regulatory agencies.
“In the past, issues were settled before we even knew about it,” says Carl Maxey, past chairman of NATM's government affairs committee. “The government relations firm will help us with that, as well as working with key legislators on issues.
“This is the first time in the association's 20-year history that we're out there to proactively say, ‘We believe this is a good thing and the right thing for us to do, and we're going to work with our peer associations to get it done’ — rather than be in a reactionary mode, where if you go to Washington, it's because they're trying to do something to you and you say, ‘Ow, this is going to hurt.’ ”
The biggest question at this point — and one that will be posed to the government-relations firm NATM has hired — is this: Should NATM try to adjust all of the state laws to be the same? Or should it push for a federal rule that would override the state rules?
“The RVIA (Recreational Vehicle Industry Association) wanted us to go to each state and stay away from the federal approach because they had some issues in the past because of what the federal approach did to them,” Gehman said. “We have a lot of common issues with them and we want to listen to what they have to say and take heed in it.
“We need support from our fellow associations. We don't want to put some legislation out there that's going to upset some people. That's not at all what we want to do. We want to formulate a plan of attack that's beneficial to everyone.”
Says Terry, “There certainly is some legitimate concern over going the federal route because you have to be so careful what you ask for. You could ask for something and end up with a whole lot of other regulations piled upon that and really make a mess out of everything. Sometimes our federal government can do that.”
Working with states
NATM has joined the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA), a nonprofit organization that represents the state and provincial officials in the United States and Canada who administer and enforce motor vehicle laws. AAMVA's programs encourage uniformity and reciprocity among the states and provinces, and the association also serves as a liaison with other levels of government and the private sector.
“You can actually write the regulation and go through that association and get to all the states through one particular avenue,” Gehman says. “But each state is going to have to enact the law individually, which means you also have to spend some time educating each legislature in all states as to what the issues are. That can be expensive and time-consuming.”
Says Maxey, “Our hope is to get a forum with the AAMVA soon to heighten their awareness of the disparity between states.”
NATM's government affairs committee is working on developing a template that will provide the exact language that the proposed rule will have. After the July board meeting, NATM will decide on date for the next meeting in either August or September, where the template will be presented to the board. Then it will work on the action plan for implementing the standard.
It's a long and winding road. NATM is only on step three of a 20-step process.
“It's certainly not going to happen overnight,” Gehman said. “It's not an easy thing. There are a variety of people with a variety of opinions. We're working both angles: state and federal. Maybe we'll try both ways. Who knows? We're trying to lay the groundwork so that as the situation arises, we can begin to make progress.
“It will take a lot of grassroots work and lobbying work, either at the state or federal level. This is long-term project. The hydraulic brake project was a 10-year project. We certainly don't believe this is a case of, ‘OK, tomorrow it's done.’ This is an ongoing, steady process. And as we make progress, our hopes are to report our incremental successes along way. We intend to utilize other trade associations. Every time we go to Washington and have board members there, we certainly expect to talk about this.
“It will take a tremendous amount of effort to get people talking about it. But in the long haul, we believe it makes an awful lot of sense and will be worth our effort. It's about improving safety on our highways. Trailers without brakes are dangerous. That's all there is to it. And safety is one of our biggest messages and driving factors as an association.”