Trucking companies are preparing for a battle over vehicle size and weight, which is expected to explode in June when the Dept. of Transportation delivers the final volume of its "Comprehensive Truck Size and Weight Study."

The purpose of the four-volume study, which has been published piecemeal during the past several years, is to supply lawmakers in Congress and elsewhere with data and analysis upon which to make decisions regarding size and weight issues. Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater has said publicly: "The report, when completed, will provide federal, state, and local officials with an essential tool to make thoughtful analyses regarding truck sizes and weights."

Vol. III, which was released December 30, 1998, included the effect of trucking weight and size on shipping costs, railroads, roads and bridges, safety, and energy. Even before it was made public, Vol. III ran into opposition from those who said the methodology was flawed.

Tainted study? In November, Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.) wrote a letter to Slater complaining that the study's scenarios relied on implausible vehicle combinations. "Some of the vehicle configurations used in the study," McIntosh wrote, "do not currently operate in any state and do not even exist ... I am concerned that the study may also be tainted by other assumptions that have no basis in reality and that the final study will therefore provide little, if any, guidance to Congress on this issue."

Slater defended the study, saying that it offered examples of the maximum effects of larger, heavier trucks. "They are not meant to suggest a disposition on the part of DOT toward a particular policy," he said in answer to McIntosh and others in Congress.

The Coalition Against Bigger Trucks applauded the study, saying it simply confirms its beliefs, and that of the general public, that bigger trucks are more dangerous and result in more traffic fatalities. The group, which is backed by railroad interests and others, says that the DOT study also makes a strong case against bigger trucks because their use leads to more road and bridge repairs.

Not surprisingly, the study notes that rails may be the biggest losers if trucks are allowed to increase their size and weight. "Changes in truck costs and rates may cause, for some shipments, a change in the selection of transport mode. For example, changes in truck rates could induce some shippers to switch from rail to truck services." The study adds that rail-to-truck diversion is not an issue for the under-200-mile market because it does not compete with rail traffic.

On safety issues, the study took aim at larger vehicles. "Some larger and heavier trucks are more prone to experiencing a rollover event than are other trucks," the study says. "Some are less capable of successfully avoiding an unforeseen obstacle when traveling at highway speeds; some negotiate tight turns and exit ramps better than others; some can be more reliably stopped in shorter distances than can others; and some climb hills and maneuver in traffic better than others."

The debate over size and weight has already begun at the state level. While governors are interested in the safety issue, several are focusing instead on the increased noise and wear on roads that larger vehicles bring.

Pavement issue While some may argue the exact numbers, the relationship between larger and heavier trucks and pavement damage has been well documented and accepted. "According to engineering principles, pavement deterioration increases with axle weight and the number of axle loadings which a pavement experiences," the study notes.

In early January, for example, South Dakota's Governor Bill Janklow warned lawmakers that he will insist that any legislative discussions about increasing vehicle weight should include input about its effect on highways.

He said that people who intentionally drive overweight trucks should be charged with "destruction of public property." On the other hand, Janklow and other Western governors are sensitive to the needs of grain-producing constituents who were stymied in attempts this past season to export crops during the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail-car shortages.

The stakes in this battle are enormous. Some estimates suggest that if Congress were to allow trucks nationwide to exceed the current 80,000-lb. limit by 10,000 lb. - such as the Freightliner-Wabash National concept vehicle - annual productivity gains could top $10 billion, for a 15% increase, according to Robert Delaney, exec. vp of Cass Information Systems Inc. Without such an increase, however, productivity in the trucking industry might drop even further from levels that Delaney and others say are already too low.

Power shift In a move stunning in both the speed and the breadth of its implications, George Reagle is out as the top federal official in charge of trucking affairs. The move came after an internal investigation revealed "a serious breach of departmental policy and congressional prohibition against lobbying." Reagle has been replaced by 21-year FHWA veteran Julie Anna Cirillo.

Not so fast Teamsters president-elect James P. Hoffa will have to wait at least a few more weeks before taking the oath of office, since Tom Leedham, who was handily defeated by Hoffa, filed a challenge last month. Federal officials overseeing the election and the union will both have to give their blessings that the Hoffa camp broke no election laws.

Looking for relief ATA looks as if it will ask the federal government to amend its drug-testing rules so that testing rates are based on individual company performance rather than industry-wide performance. Fleets must now test 50% of their drivers. FHWA can reduce the sampling to 25% if industry-wide violations fall below 1% for two consecutive years.

Shhhh! Tolls ahead FHWA is attempting to tiptoe past trucking industry objections by moving ahead with plans for tolls to be placed on Interstate highways. The agency recently notified states that it would select pilot projects for the program later this year.

Try harder An internal DOT investigation has determined that the agency is doing a lousy job of inspecting trucks at the U.S.-Mexican border. Too few trucks are being inspected, and often those that are still don't comply with U.S. standards. Volume is part of the problem. Some 1,300 trucks pass over one El Paso border crossing, yet there is only one truck inspector who inspects 10-14 units a day.

Rules go into effect March 1; fleets have until December 1 to comply

Rules mandating training for anyone who even occasionally operates a forklift have been issued by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The new rules, which will apply to fleets, are intended to reduce the number of injuries and deaths related to forklift operation. According to OSHA, forklift accidents result in 24,000 injuries each year, with truck drivers representing 5.5% of all injured workers.

Under the rules, training programs should be based on the prior knowledge and skill of the operator, demonstrated ability, type of equipment involved, and hazards of the workplace. Performance evaluations will be mandated at least once every three years. In addition, forklift operators involved in accidents or near misses will be required to go through refresher training.

Training must cover the following:

* Operating instructions, warnings, and precautions for the types of equipment the operator will be authorized to operate

* Differences between trucks and cars

* Truck controls and instrumentation

* Engine and motor operation

* Steering

* Visibility

* Fork and attachment operation

* Vehicle capacity

* Vehicle stability

* Inspection and maintenance

* Refueling

The new rule goes into effect March 1 and employers have until December 1 to conduct the mandated training.

Efforts are stepping up in Congress to move the Office of Motor Carriers from the Federal Highway Administration to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Despite protests from the trucking industry, proponents of the idea - led in the House by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation - are gaining ground. In late November, Senate Commerce Committee chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he would hold hearings early this year on Wolf's proposal.

Those who support the move say that since the Dept. of Transportation was established in 1966, highway and vehicle safety programs and policies have been divided between the two agencies. This has led to ineffective leadership and regulatory delays. For example, NHTSA is responsible for issuing manufacturing regulations related to truck safety matters but FHWA, through OMC, has the job of issuing in-service regulations.

Even consumer advocate Ralph Nader, who has publicly derided NHTSA, came out publicly for the move, saying that as poorly operated as NHTSA is, it would still be better for overall safety if it oversaw OMC.

The Internal Revenue Service has just made it more expensive for large taxpayers to get a legal opinion from the IRS Chief Counsel's office, while lowering the cost for some smaller businesses. The opinion, known as a private letter ruling, is often sought in connection with corporate acquisitions. Carriers have also sought letter rulings about employment or excise tax issues, questions involving write-offs for expenses, or the treatment of employee benefits deductions. Now the IRS fee for such rulings has risen to $5,000 from $3,650. But a special small-taxpayer rate of $500 will apply to businesses with less than $1 million in gross income, up from a $150,000 cap before.

Last month, Caterpillar demonstrated the fuel efficiency of its 1999 heavy-duty engine models. A fuel-economy test was conducted from Phoenix to San Antonio and back that teamed magazine editors with Cat engine-performance consultants Jim Booth and Phil Hook.

A Kenworth T2000 powered by a '99 Cat 12-liter C-12 engine and driven by Hook recorded 7.1 mpg over the 1,924-mile trip. A KW T600 powered by a '99 Cat 14.6-liter 34406E and piloted by Booth attained 6.8 mpg after covering 1,986 miles.

"These exceptional results were achieved while meeting the new emissions standards set forth recently by EPA," noted David Semlow, marketing manager for the Caterpillar Truck Engine Div. "Caterpillar heavy-duty engines were upgraded for 1999 with state-of-art electronics and other refinements, which contributed to the unbeatable combination of performance and fuel economy."

For '99, the C-12 features ratings from 335 to 430 hp. with peak torque ranges from 1,350 to 1,650 lb.-ft. It also boasts a common iron set from 335 to 430 hp., allowing for easy uprating at trade-in.

The '99 3406E offers ratings from 355 to 550 hp. Multi-Torque ratings are also available that combine fuel efficiency with reserve power. The 3406E also comes in a 15.8-liter version that allows up to 600 hp. and 2,040 lb.-ft. of peak torque.

Both engines feature Cat's ADEM 2000, a new-generation electronic control module (ECM) that the engine maker says increases performance and reliability while meeting demand for improved emissions.

The ADEM (Advanced Diesel Engine Management) 2000 unit features an advanced processor said to be three times faster than its predecessor. It also boasts additional memory to support diagnostics and information management. Usedproperly, according to Semlow, it can "substantially offset" any potential loss of fuel economy due to the stricter new EPA emissions regs for medium- and heavy-duty trucks.

"ADEM 2000 more precisely monitors and controls the fuel-injection process," said Semlow. "It's more able to respond quickly to the many operating variables of the engines. And programmable options, such as the Cat Driver Information Display and Fleet Information Software, give customers the ability not only to improve fuel economy, but also to better manage their operations."

Ford Motor Co.'s plans to buy AB Volvo's passenger car operations will be "very positive" for the Swedish company's commercial truck businesses around the world, according to Marc F. Gustafson, president and CEO of Volvo Trucks North America. "Obviously, (the sale) will let Volvo turn its resources to building our commercial vehicle business. And (Volvo Trucks North America) fully intends to play a major role in that process," he said shortly after the agreement was announced in late January.

Under the agreement, Ford will pay $6.45 billion for all of Volvo's automobile manufacturing facilities, as well as exclusive rights to the Volvo brand name for cars, minivans, light trucks, and other passenger vehicles. Volvo will retain rights to the name for commercial vehicles and nonautomotive products.

Recently, Volvo bought a 12.8% stake in Sweden's other truck manufacturer, Scania, and announced its intention to pursue a merger that would create Europe's largest truck builder.

Meritor Automotive and Pressure Systems International Inc. (PSI) have joined forces to market and distribute automatic tire inflation systems for trailers.

The PSI system uses compressed air from the trailer air system to inflate any tire that falls below a preset pressure while the trailer is moving. The automatic inflation system controls air flow to ensure that trailers maintain proper and consistent tire pressure. This system will help operators with problems such as in-service failure, increased fuel consumption, and excessive tread wear.

Meritor will begin distributing the tire inflation system on March 1 to North American trailer OEMs and through its aftermarket organization, based in Florence, Ky., and Brampton, Ont. PSI will manufacture the system at its facility in San Antonio, Tex., and assist Meritor with sales and service support.

"The partnership with PSI offers Meritor the immediate opportunity to offer our customers the industry-leading trailer tire inflation system and further differentiate our expanding axle product line with both OEMs and end users," says Bob Zirlin, director of marketing for Meritor's Worldwide Trailer Products business.

Frank Sonzala, vp-sales and marketing for PSI, says the agreement enables both companies to meet the needs of the trailer industry. "The partnership allows PSI to advance to the next level through more widespread distribution ... (and) gives Meritor the advantage of offering the most commercially attractive tire inflation system in the world for trailers."

Horton Inc. plans to split its two divisions into separate companies this year, a move it says will allow each to focus on its distinct customer base.

Hugh Schilling will remain chairman, while Randall R. Nord, a former Horton vp, will return as president and CEO, overseeing operations of the company's core vehicle components business. Hugh (Hutch) K. Schilling Jr. will buy the industrial products business.