Battle for bigger trucks

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Bigger trucks are more dangerous trucks. Lifting truck weight and size limits would turn big rigs into time bombs.” -James P. Hoffa, general president, International Brotherhood of Teamsters.


You‘ve got to give Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters credit: they know how to fire off good sound bites. The above quotation comes from the latest Teamster broadside aimed at heading off an effort to review federal truck size and weight limit laws. The labor group also claimed the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is proposing to launch a pilot program that would allow heavier and longer combination vehicles (LCVs) to operate on U.S. highways in “border states,” presumably those along the U.S.-Mexican border.


Well, guess what -- the FMCSA isn't proposing any such program at all (ESPECIALLY along the Mexican border). In fact, the reason that the FMCSA got mixed up in this at all is that several officials appeared alongside their colleagues from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), who were testifying before Congress about commercial vehicle weight monitoring efforts and how the FHWA is exploring the creation of "truck-only" lanes to reduce congestion and speed up transit times. FMCSA officials didn't even testify! They were on hand in case members of Congress had any questions about safety enformecement issues.


All that aside, however, there‘s no doubt that the truck size and weight issue is again coming to a boil as the trucking industry not only searches for ways to boost productivity without adding more expensive equipment to our already-clogged roads, but to improve its environmental footprint as well.


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Indeed, the industry is already conducting new size and weight studies of its own. The National Private Truck Council (NPTC), for one, approved an informal technical proposal to conduct a study on the benefits of larger trucks for those businesses operating private truck fleets back in April this year.


The study, to be conducted by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), is designed to benchmark the current transportation efficiency by looking at the operations of archetypal private fleets, focusing on: over-the-road operating costs, cargo transported, miles traveled and safety performance.


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“We hope to establish beyond a shadow of doubt that increasing the truck size-and-weight limits will result in better and more efficient use of commercial motor vehicles,” said Gary Petty, NPTC president and CEO, noting that the study will also include a measure of fuel use, emissions output and truck trips that are required to fulfill the individual companies‘ annual transportation responsibilities


Michael Smid, president and CEO of YRC North American Transportation, testified on behalf of the American Trucking Association (ATA) before Congress last week that bigger trucks could reduce congestion on the nation's highways, reduce energy use, and improve highway safety and air quality. He noted that federal law governing truck size and weights hasn‘t been updated since 1982. Yet since then, truck tonnage has increased nearly 40%, driven by a 32% increase in the U.S. population and 82% growth in the nation‘s gross domestic product.


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“While other freight transportation modes have adapted their equipment to meet these growing demands, the capacity of the trucking industry has remained virtually stagnant,” he stressed. Smid noted that, under current federal and state truck regulations, the growth in freight demand will require a 41% increase in the number of commercial trucks, adding nearly 3 million trucks to the nation‘s roads.


The Teamsters, of course, aren‘t buying any of this and they rolled out their own experts before Congress to rebut Smid‘s views.


Teamster member Vince Brezinsky, a 31-year truck driving veteran, testified that in his experience bigger trucks take longer to stop, are harder to get up to highway speed in merge lanes and are too long to make tight turns. “Also, our current highway system is not built for longer and heavier trucks,” he noted. “And, as a truck gets heavier, more fuel is used.”


(Of course, if you use fewer trucks by increasing their weight, the industry‘s overall fuel bill - expected to cost a staggering $135 billion this year - should go down. We‘ll see if NPTC‘s study proves that out.)


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The battle over the use of LCVs is not new, though. It starts way back in 1956, when federal regulations gave over 20 states the option to allow triple trailers and other long vehicles. But when Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) in 1991, it prohibited the states from increasing the size and weight of combination vehicles beyond ones already allowed on June 1 of that year.


Today, some form of LCV is currently allowed on designated routes in Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. Oversize/overweight vehicles may be allowed by local jurisdictions in California for certain vehicles and loads.


According to research by the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) there are advantages and disadvantages to using LCVs. Caltrans research indicates the advantages of LCVs may include:


Productivity. LCVs improve productivity due an increase of cargo-carrying capacity of 30% to 100% per driver. This results in fewer truck trips, lower cost, and fewer miles driven.

Cost. Transport costs may be lower due to fewer drivers needed per cargo unit, and more efficient use of fuel. The cost savings may be passed on to consumers or increase profits.

Traffic. Improved productivity may result in fewer trucks on the road.

Air Emissions. LCVs may produce lower air emissions per unit of cargo transported.


However, the agency said there are many disadvantages to LCVs, as well. Those may include:


Safety. Large trucks are involved in a disproportional percentage of fatal collisions. However, statistics on LCVs are difficult to obtain because of the low number of vehicle involved. Triples tend to sway and can leave the lane they are traveling in, although sway can be lessened by advanced connector types. Triples also require more passing length, spray more rain and snow, and have a history of being underpowered while climbing steep grades.

Pavement damage. Heavier trucks deteriorate the pavement structure at an accelerated rate. A study at the University of Texas found that one big rig pass causes the damage equivalent to 2,000 to 3,000 cars. However, the extra pavement damage from LCVs may be mitigated by the increased number of axles.

Infrastructure damage. LCVs, especially Turnpike Doubles and Rocky Mountain Doubles, demonstrate wider off-tracking on curves than currently legal tractor-trailer combinations. Off-tracking can damage shoulders, curbs and roadside signs along ramps and intersections.

Parking. The parking spaces at rest areas and truckstops are not designed for trucks longer than 80 ft.

Traffic. In theory, LCVs could result in fewer trucks on the road. However, if rail cargo is diverted to trucks due to lower costs, then any traffic advantage would be negated.


Caltrans noted that it tested and videotaped the performance of several LCV types along a 1,200-mile stretch of highway in 1983, studying LCV behavior on freeway interchanges, open-road travel, urban traffic, narrow lanes, two-lane roads, rest areas, and weigh scales. It also looked at issues such as: off-tracking, speed on grades, braking, acceleration, travel in rain and wind, noise generation, and fuel economy.


The agency said some of the problems encountered included: the whip and sway action of the triples on the open road; the off-tracking of the Rocky Mountain doubles and turnpike doubles on curves; and the difficulty parking in rest areas of all three LCV types.


(Click here for the complete Caltrans study so you can look at the hard numbers yourself.)


One thing is for certain - with diesel fuel costing $5 a gallon on average in the U.S. now, with equipment costs forecast to rise an additional $5,000 to $10,000 to meet 2010 emission regulations, and with truck drivers still in short supply, the debate over putting more LCVs on our highways won‘t be going away anytime soon.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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