At the very time highway fatalities are climbing and the condition of the nation’s roads and bridges has reached new lows, the trucking industry is again asking its friends in Congress to work against the public good and permit a new generation of heavier trucks.
This is a quest that Congress has already rejected several times, and for good reason. Bigger trucks mean more serious accidents, because they are inherently less stable and take longer to stop.
Congress defeated an amendment in 2015 to permit trucks as heavy at 91,000 pounds on interstate highways, up from the 80,000-pound limit that has been in effect since 1982.
Sponsors of that failed amendment have promised to reintroduce similar legislation this year. With truck-involved fatalities on the rise — up 8 percent to 4,050 in from 2014 to 2015, even though miles traveled by trucks rose by only 0.3 percent — Congress must again say no to heavier trucks on the roads.
The higher limit is being pushed by segments of the trucking industry and by shippers who would benefit from heavier loads, such as beverage makers and grain haulers.
At 80,000 pounds, trucks are already 20 to 30 times heavier than most cars, and take 20 percent to 40 percent farther to stop. Heavier trucks mean more — and more severe — crashes, in large part because the stopping distance required for a truck loaded with 91,000 pounds of freight is substantially longer than one with “only” 80,000 pounds of load.
Many fatal truck crashes involve rear-end collisions. The Department of Transportation reported that in 2015 large trucks were involved in 27 percent of all fatal crashes in roadway work zones, even though they represent only about 10 percent of all highway traffic. These crashes are usually caused when trucks come up on vehicles stalled by the roadwork.
Truck driver fatigue, truck driver speeding and the physics of stopping a heavy vehicle cause this disproportionate involvement of trucks in accidents. Allowing trucks to be almost 14 percent heavier is certain to add to the carnage.
This is a peculiar time for the trucking industry to be looking for a rule change that would degrade highway safety. While large truck fatalities have been skyrocketing — jumping 26 percent between 2009 and 2015 — truckers have continued to press Congress for the relaxation of the nation’s already less-than-vigorous safety enforcement.
During my 15 years as an executive for the trucking industry’s largest advocacy group, I learned that for far too long, motor carriers have been resistant to deploying safety technologies that could make traveling safer for all of us — all in the name of cost. Fleets have protested against the government’s attempts to reduce driver fatigue, and truckers are currently allowed to drive 77 hours a week.
And while many late-model cars now have automatic braking systems, lane-departure warning devices and adaptive cruise control, most trucks operating on our highways do not because fleets don’t want to pay for these life-saving devices.
Congress needs to see through arguments put forth by proponents of heavier trucks that higher limits will mean fewer trucks on the road. History shows us that increasing truck capacity limits leads to more freight diversion to trucking from competing modes, because bigger trucks mean lower per-pound costs. So, heavier trucks will lead to more trucks, not fewer.
The trucking industry is vital to the American economy and moves almost 70 percent of all domestic freight. But we need to demand more from the industry than just lower transport prices.
Before motor carriers can ask for bigger vehicles, they should at least be required to purchase and deploy the latest safety technologies to protect their drivers and fellow motorists. Only after these devices are deployed and trucking’s safety record improves should Congress consider any changes to truck size and weight regulations.
Approximately 100 people a day die in road crashes in the United States — for a truly shocking total of more than 35,000 a year. More people will die in truck-involved crashes this year in this country than have been killed in all the domestic commercial airlines crashes over the past 45 years, if past trends hold true.
Until the trucking industry agrees to vigorously promote road safety and help reduce truck-related accidents on our roads, Congress should refuse to make any more concessions to motor carriers.