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Are Big Rigs Going to Get Even Bigger?

Commercial trucks like big rigs and semis can weigh up to 80,000 pounds (lbs.) when fully loaded, according to current federal trucking regulations.1 Some in the trucking industry, however, are now pushing to increase this maximum weight limit, urging Congress to raise it to 91,000 lbs.

Supporters of this weight limit increase have highlighted some of the distinct benefits that could come with this change. Opponents, however, have pointed out that this increase could present some serious risks to the driving public.

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Support for Increasing Weight Limits for Commercial Trucks: The Potential Benefits 

Are Big Rigs Going to Get Even Bigger?

Are Big Rigs Going to Get Even Bigger?

Heading up support for higher truck weight limits is the Safer Hauling and Infrastructure Protection coalition (SHIP), comprised of more than 80 major agricultural groups and shipping companies from across the U.S. In May 2017, SHIP sent a letter to Congress, urging lawmakers to approve a 15-year pilot program to study the impacts of increasing truck weight limits to 91,000 lbs. on interstate highways.

As part of this proposal, SHIP recommended changing the design of current 18-wheelers to a 6-axle, 22-wheel configuration to support the additional 11,000 lbs. These changes, according to SHIP, could come with a number of advantages, such as: 

  • Traffic-related benefits – If commercial trucks are able to haul more cargo, in theory, fewer trucks would be needed to support the current transport and delivery needs. This could mean that fewer commercial trucks on are on the roads, potentially resulting in:
    • An estimated 1.2-billion mile reduction in vehicle miles traveled (by commercial trucks)
    • About $358 million in savings in annual congestion-related costs.
  • Infrastructure benefits – Fewer trucks could also result in less wear and tear on the nation’s highways, according to SHIP. This could result in an estimated 2.4 to 4.2 percent savings on roadway maintenance costs.
  • Environmental benefits – With fewer trucks handling the same loads, there would also theoretically be less carbon emissions and more fuel savings, with:
    • An expected 2.4-billion lb. reduction in annual carbon emissions
    • About 109 million gallons of fuel saved every year.
  • Economic benefits – Shippers, trucking companies and others could see massive savings in business operation costs. In fact, SHIP estimates that these businesses could save as much as $5.6 billion in operation costs every year.

Summing up why this proposal should be approved, SHIP explained in its letter to Congress that: 

While significant progress has been made in vehicle safety and pavement technology, it has been 35 years since the U.S. updated GVW [gross vehicle weight] limits on Federal Interstate Highways… Given the potential benefits of modernizing the baseline GVW limit on Federal Interstate Highways to a 91,000 lb, 6-axle, bridge formula compliant configuration, we believe Congress should create an opportunity for policy makers and DOT to obtain information they need to determine if there is a correlation between GVW and serious accidents.

Opposition to Higher Truck Weight Limits: The Possible Disadvantages & Risks

Despite the support for – and the purported benefits of – increasing truck weight limits, a number of groups strongly oppose this proposal. Among these are the Citizens for Reliable and Safety Highways, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, the Truck Safety Coalition and the OneRail Coalition. In July 2017, some of these opponents sent a rebuttal letter to Congress, urging lawmakers to reject SHIP’s proposal for a pilot study and increased truck weight limits.

This letter explained that higher truck weight limits would present some serious drawbacks and potential risks. Specifically, it pointed out that heavier trucks will:

  • Present more dangers to the driving public – Fatal truck accidents have been consistently increasing in recent years, with an estimated 20 percent surge in truck wreck deaths since 2009. Additionally, big rigs weighing between 65,000 and 80,000 lbs. are twice as likely as trucks weighing 50,000 lbs. (or less) to be involved in deadly wrecks. Increasing the truck weight limits would substantially increase the risks and deaths associated with truck accidents, according to opponents.
  • Damage the nation’s “fragile” highways faster – While the nation’s highways and bridges are already in need of significant improvements, overweight trucks would increase the damage to this fragile infrastructure. In fact, opponents estimate that “increasing the weight of a heavy truck by only 10 percent increases bridge damage by 33 percent.” That could mean that annual funding for bridge repair and maintenance alone would need to increase by 20 percent, increasing to nearly $148 billion.
  • Cost taxpayers more money – The costs of maintaining the nation’s infrastructure would likely end up being passed on to the American taxpayers, opponents note. Although it is unclear how much taxpayer money could be drained by increased infrastructure costs, opponents did point out that this expense would likely contribute a chronic deficit in the U.S. budget.
  • Have a negative environmental impact – Although SHIP claims that heavier trucks could come with environmental benefits, opponents have explained that, “despite misleading claims to the contrary, research and experience shows that allowing bigger, heavier trucks will not result in fewer trucks [on U.S. roads].” This claim is backed up by data showing that, since 1982 (the last time truck weight limits were increased in the U.S.), registrations for commercial trucks have skyrocketed by 95 percent. Additionally, they note that heavier trucks would require bigger engines, which would require more fuel and would release more emissions.

Bringing these points home, opponents concluded their rebuttal letter by explaining:

Annual truck crash fatalities are equivalent to a major airplane crash every other week of the year. Any change overturning current truck size and weight laws will further strain and erode our crumbling infrastructure, present dire safety risks and disrupt efficient intermodal freight transportation. It is critical that any proposals which would increase the size or weight of trucks be rejected, including pilot programs and measures to preempt state limits.

Whether lawmakers will approve or reject SHIP’s proposal remains to be seen. As further updates about this proposal become available, we will bring you the latest news in a future blog.

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1: More information on current federal trucking weight limits