Here We Go Again: The Latest Push for Bigger Trucks

Is there any piece of legislation that seems more of an oxymoron than the Safe, Flexible, and Efficient (SAFE) Trucking Act? This bill would allow already dangerous trucks to haul more than 5 tons over what they are allowed today. Yet, that is the proposal from Congressman Reid Ribble of Wisconsin.

The new bill, introduced in September, would allow individual states to raise the federal weight limit for tractor-trailers from the current limit of 80,000 pounds to 91,000 pounds. The proposed bill is supported by many in the trucking industry because it would allow them to ship their goods – from steel to milk – at a lower cost. But at what cost to ordinary motorists?

A group of parked semi tractors
A group of parked semi tractors

In 2013, nearly 4,000 people died in crashes involving large trucks, according to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. And the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that two-thirds of those killed were passenger vehicle occupants, followed by another 15 percent who were pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcyclists. The Institute also points out that braking distances for trucks are much longer than for ordinary passenger vehicles, and wet, slippery roads exacerbate the problem.

The Houston Chronicle notes that Texas bears the brunt of these deadly accidents. Texas’ 493 fatal truck crashes in 2013 accounted for more than 12 percent of big rig fatalities nationwide. Among those lobbying Washington against upping truck weight and size allowances is Tim Jayroe, the longtime police chief of Rockport, Texas. He previously witnessed a horrific accident involving an 18-wheeler loaded with pipe that sped into his coastal town’s busy intersection, hitting six cars and sending 12 people to the hospital.

But Ribble’s bill isn’t where the efforts stop. I wrote earlier about the trucking lobby’s push to raise the weight limit even higher than Ribble is proposing – up to 97,000 pounds – along with allowing longer trailers. Around that time, the U.S. Department of Transportation released an overdue report that took a deep dive into accidents and truck specifications. That report concluded that no change be made to trucking weight limits, in part because the department lacked sufficient data to determine the weight of vehicles involved in accidents and the true effects of allowing even heavier trucks on the highways.

“As such, the department believes that no changes in the relevant truck size and weight laws and regulations should be considered until these data limitations are overcome,” said Peter Rogoff, DOT policy undersecretary.

The American Trucking Association predictably has labeled that conclusion politically motivated as the group continues to push for ever bigger trucks for its own financial gains. Meanwhile, the National Troopers Coalition, many independent truckers, and groups such as the Coalition Against Bigger Trucks hope that Congress will put the safety of ordinary citizens ahead of big industry profit. As Rockport Police Chief Jayroe puts it, “I have no issue with truckers….I just don’t think they need longer, heavier trucks to get the job done.”