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Published: Thursday, 5/14/2009

Big 'no' to bigger trucks

BIGGER is not necessarily better, and that's certainly true in the case of those heavy tractor-trailer rigs traveling our highways.

The trucking industry is hoping Congress will increase the federal maximum weight that can be carried, from the current 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds. The American Trucking Association and other groups that support the change argue that doing so will increase productivity and reduce transportation costs.

But not even all truckers support the proposed change, and a bill co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. John Murtha and Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania would freeze the weight restrictions at today's level.

From the standpoint of the driver of an average family car, it might seem as if there would be little difference between an accident involving a tractor-trailer of 80,000 pounds or one carrying 97,000. The smaller vehicle almost certainly will be the loser in either case, but there is a significant difference, according to research cited by Advocates for Highway & Auto Safety.

The group points to a study by the University of Michigan that found the chance of a big-truck crash resulting in death or serious injuries increases with each ton of additional weight, and even a truck with a legal 80,000 pounds of cargo is more than twice as likely to be involved in a fatal crash than a 50,000-pound truck.

Those who favor the increase say that, because trucks that will carry the heavier loads would have to add another axle, their stopping times won't necessarily be adversely affected. But Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, told FleetOwner magazine that adding the weight will make trucks harder to handle.

Also significant is the greater wear and tear that an extra 17,000 pounds per truck will have on highways and ramps. A single 80,000-pound tractor-trailer does as much damage to road pavement as 9,600 cars, and the heavier the load, the greater the impact.

Proponents for increasing the limit argue that bigger trucks mean fewer trips, reducing by millions the number of miles trucks will have to travel if they can run heavier loads. History does not support that conclusion. According to the Truck Safety Coalition, the mileage logged by large trucks doubled from 1982 - when Congress last raised the maximum load, from 73,280 to the current level - to 2002, despite similar projections beforehand that the increase would cut down on truck trips.

As Congress begins the complex negotiation over reauthorization of the federal transportation bill, the danger is that increasing the maximum weight limits could become a chit in bargaining. House Bill 1618 will stop that before it gets any traction. Tractor-trailers are big enough.



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