Monday, May 11, 2009

Trucking Industry Group Wants Bigger, Heavier Rigs

Greater efficiency cited with higher weight limit, but opponents worry about safety

Sunday, May 10, 2009
by Jon Schmitz, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

To the alarm of some safety advocates, the trucking industry is asking Congress to allow heavier tractor-trailers to ply the nation's highways. The industry contends that an increase of the federal maximum weight from the current 80,000 pounds to 97,000 pounds would promote efficiency and reduce congestion and pollution without compromising safety.

Several families of truck crash victims held a news conference in Washington, D.C., last week to decry the proposal. "If the big truck companies have their way, more families will have to suffer what ours did and always will. There will be more truck crash-related deaths, more debilitating injuries and more roadway damage and destruction," said Frank and Marchelle Wood, of Falls Church, Va., in a statement. Their daughter, a college student, died in a 2002 crash with a truck.
"They want bigger, heavier, longer and more dangerous trucks," Jackie Gillan, of Silver Spring, Md., a longtime highway safety advocate, said in an interview. "They are asking the American public to pay for this with their lives and their wallets."

The higher limits are supported by the 37,000-member American Trucking Associations, the trade association of the trucking industry. But not all truckers are on board -- the Teamsters union and the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association are opposed to the increase.
"Large trucks are more dangerous to drive and damage highways and bridges; the safety, highway design and operating issues involved in allowing bigger trucks are not worth the negligible gains in productivity they might realize," said LaMont Byrd, Teamsters safety and health department director, at a news conference last month. He was speaking in support of a bill introduced by U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., to freeze weight and size limits and extend them beyond the 40,000-mile interstate highway system to 161,000 miles of U.S. highways.

That bill is co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills, and John Murtha, D-Johnstown. A different measure introduced by Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine, would allow states to increase the weight limit to 97,000 pounds and impose higher fees to compensate for bridge damage from the heavier trucks.

The issue may come to a head during debate this summer on a new multiyear highway funding authorization bill. The current legislation -- the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users -- expires Sept. 30. Clayton Boyce, spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, said the higher weight limit has been adopted in Canada and Europe and "it has proven to be safe there."

The principal benefits of heavier trucks are more efficient shipping of freight, which translates to lower consumer costs, and the need for fewer trucks on the highways, which reduces congestion and pollution, he said. The proposal would require heavier trucks to have an additional axle, giving them extra braking power and enabling them to stop in the same distance as tractor-trailers carrying the current maximum, he said. "There's no degradation of safety, so you have to look to the benefits of it," Mr. Boyce said.

The Truck Safety Coalition, a leading foe of higher weight limits, disputes the industry's claim that heavier trucks would mean fewer of them on the roads. "Even after several increases to the sizes and weights of large trucks, the number of trucks on U.S. highways has consistently grown over the past few decades," the coalition said in a statement. The mileage logged by large trucks doubled from 1982 to 2002 and continues to grow, it said. "Every time Congress has increased truck weights, there has been an explosion in trucks. That is a completely bogus argument," said Ms. Gillan, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Some 4,808 people were killed in crashes involving large trucks in 2007 -- "the equivalent of 52 major airline crashes ... one crash every week resulting in 95 deaths," the coalition said. That represents a decrease of 590 deaths annually compared with a decade ago. Pennsylvania ranked 28th among states in truck crash deaths per 100,000 people in 2007, the most recent year for which statistics were available. It had 194 deaths that year, down from 224 in 2003.
Mr. Boyce said the leading cause of accidents attributable to trucks is speeding and reckless driving, not vehicle weight. He said his organization has supported -- to no avail so far -- mandatory use of governor devices that limit truck speeds to 65 mph and a requirement that companies with poor safety records install data recorders, similar to those deployed on airliners, in their trucks.

Mr. Boyce said some of the groups opposing higher weight limits were fronting for the railroad industry. "Railroads want government action to make trucks less competitive," he said. "Safety has been our most important issue. We are working to improve safety." "We've never gotten a single dollar from the railroad industry," said Ms. Gillan, who said 50 relatives of crash victims paid their way to Washington to attend the news conference and meet with lawmakers.

Jon Schmitz can be reached at jschmitz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1868.

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